She had been at the Bastille Day celebration, enjoying the fireworks with her neighbors and her two daughters.
When she saw the truck barreling through the crowd of people towards her group, she had one panic-stricken moment to make an anguishing decision. Would she grab her daughters and deliver them to safety, or run towards her neighbors in an attempt to protect them?
Ultimately, she chose her daughters. She pushed them against the railing and the truck passed mere inches away. Tragically, her neighbors were tallied among the 84 casualties from the July 14, 2016, terror attack.
As the chaplain hugged the woman, the enormous guilt she felt over the murder of her neighbors and her inability to save them poured out. Together they prayed for the woman and her daughters; for deliverance from the guilt; for peace in the midst of the storm. When the two parted, a small smile of hope creased the face that had moments before been full of anguish.
The Billy Graham Rapid Response Team is a crisis-chaplaincy ministry that was birthed out of tragedy. In the days following Sept. 11, 2001, Franklin Graham — president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association — recognized a need for Christians who would be trained to appropriately share hope in times of great suffering.
Over the past 15 years, the organization has grown into a nationwide network of chaplains who have deployed to more than 250 man-made and natural disasters, including fires, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and mass shootings. Beginning with Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, the ministry has also begun offering what it calls a “ministry of presence” in areas of civil unrest.
One question that is very often asked is “Why do you do it?” Of course, that’s likely the question many of you receive as well. Why do you run towards disaster rather than away from it? Why do you leave the safety and comfort of home and stand on the front lines of pain and uncertainty?
It could be said that though a chaplain’s role is very different than yours; the core motivation may be remarkably similar. It’s often about empathy and service. Engrained in our hearts is a concern for others, and a desire to serve the greater good — even if it requires significant sacrifice on our part.
That sense of empathy and service drives you to face a blistering fire or rush into an area where there has been a shooting. Similarly, it draws chaplains to pray with people in their darkest days, to weep with them and comfort them; to take the burden of sorrow onto themselves in order to help others heal.
When Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplains look at a homeowner whose belongings are turning to mold after a flood, or witness a family wailing in agony over the sudden loss of a loved one, or even see a tumultuous crowd seeking to create chaos in the streets, their impulse is to bring peace into the void. The words of Matthew 9:36 come to life: “When he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (ESV)
After the “why” question often comes the “how.” How do you offer comfort to somebody who has lost everything? How do your words make people feel better? How can you even begin to say something that brings peace in the face of agony?
Interestingly, words often have very little to do with it. The best chaplains are those who don’t rush to speak, but rather take the time to listen. Everybody has a story to tell, and healing can start when survivors begin to express their experiences, thoughts and fears.
It may be cliché, but some folks literally need a shoulder to cry on. They maintain a strong faÃ§ade, but melt and begin to release the pent-up emotion when a chaplain embraces them. Stony faces become drenched in tears. It’s good. It’s necessary. Healing begins.
Finally, as chaplains with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, we believe strongly in the power of prayer. We offer hope in the name of Jesus.
We ask for permission before praying, but it’s very rare that someone declines the opportunity. Much like the French woman referenced earlier, even people who don’t have a faith will often accept prayer in the midst of a tragedy, and inviting God into the situation often makes an incredible difference in their countenance and attitude. There’s a peace that comes when the name of Jesus is proclaimed, even in the storm.
The “why” and the “how” shape who we are as we offer hope, peace and love following tragedies around the world. In the 15 years since the ministry began, we’ve had the opportunity to comfort more than 264,000 people from the rolling hills of Kentucky to the Gulf Coast of Louisiana to the streets of Brussels, Belgium.
God has positioned this ministry in unique ways, allowing us to grow and increase our impact in areas of great need. In difficult times, we look forward to working alongside you to provide emotional and spiritual care to those who need it most.
Erik Ogren has worked with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association since 2001, and has been extensively involved with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team of crisis chaplains since 2007. Over the last nine years, he has traveled to some three dozen man-made and natural disaster zones across the United States to assist the organization with communications efforts. He resides near St. Paul, MN, with his wife, Amber and daughter, Emma.