LAS VEGAS—The people of North America are hurting. After a slew of natural disasters along the Gulf Coast and Florida panhandle and a shooting massacre in Las Vegas during a country concert, compassion and hope for a better tomorrow may seem like a distant dream.
But that’s why the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and North American Mission Board (NAMB)’s chaplains exist—to walk the frontlines of crisis and extend God’s kindness to those in need.
Love for Vegas
“A lot of chaplains from all over the country called to offer help after the senseless Vegas shooting,” said Sam Stanton, Nevada Disaster Relief (DR) director and chaplain. “People were willing to come and serve. That’s part of the nature of chaplains, though. No matter the mess, they’re ready to step in and lend a listening ear or helping hand.”
According to Stanton, those who offered to help would not have been able to gain access to the survivors or to the victims’ families.
“So, we did what we could with who we had,” Stanton said. “There were three of us who had very good partnerships with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and were able to get to talk with people. The police department and all the officers are doing a great job handling this difficult situation. They seemed to have it covered. But, they let us into the hotel next to the one where the shooter holed himself up. There we were able to speak with eye-witnesses and hotel staff who were traumatized by what should have been an ordinary night.”
Stanton, accompanied by California Disaster Relief (DR) Director, Mike Bivins and Tim Patton, an associate pastor of South Reno Baptist Church, provided chaplain services to those needing or able to talk.
“Even the police stationed around the hotels after the shooting wanted to talk,” said Stanton. “One young officer had arrived on scene during the shooter’s second round of rapid fire. He remembered running very carefully but quickly to get people to safety. He was about to become a father, and yet there he was, running to save others’ lives as bullets tore through tents around him.”
While some just needed to talk, others couldn’t even form the words. Grief was holding on too tight.
“The real heartbreaking stories were from those we talked to at the resource center,” Stanton recalled. “People were making arrangements to get their loved ones’ bodies. It was there we heard some of the most tragic and unimaginable stories.”
One man was there to pick up his 33-year-old daughter’s body.
“He was in a corner all by himself, covered in grief,” said Stanton. “I talked to him but not to provide answers. I knew the only thing I could do was make sure he knew he was loved and that I cared about him.”
Stanton and Bivins normally provide chaplain services during natural disasters—hurricanes, tornados, floods, earthquakes and landslides. This kind of needed response was new to them.
“This kind of response is so different because everyone here is a victim,” Stanton said. “In a natural disaster, people lose their homes, their sense of security. But they hardly ever lose loved ones. Some do, but not like this. We met a young man whose wife of seven years had died in his arms. He was not inclined to hear about God. He was so angry.”
Yet Stanton said all he and the other Southern Baptist chaplains could do was make sure the young widower had resources and people around him. It’s part of disaster response protocol.
“His relatives had come from Mexico to be with him,” said Stanton. “All I could do was express my appreciation to them for being there for him. At the moment, it might just seem dark and like we are all alone. But God really does care. This was an act of evil. And the Lord has a good and mighty way of turning things around. I was grateful to have Mike and Tim with me, too.”
Bivins, who Stanton thanked earlier, said he’d never experienced anything like it.
“Though I did not deploy to 9-11, I knew instantly upon being in Vegas that this was going to be very different,” said Bivins. “Both were terrible tragedies but 9-11 had motive behind it. The shooting in Vegas made no sense. It was a violation of humans rights and everyone from Nevada natives to survivors to victims’ friends and families felt that way.”
But having a chaplain presence at the resource center soothed those identifying body parts and those who had to make tough decisions about the deceased.
“Everyone was impacted by this,” Bivins said. “People are responding to us, to the police and to each other in emotional ways. We’re all confused. There were times talking to people when I felt inadequate in my response. Yet, God is bigger than this. His love conquers all fear. And the police are doing a great job. Maybe for now the answer is in people loving people, taking care of one another in the midst of tragedy.”
Hope for Florida
Brad Gwartney volunteers as the Florida state coordinator for spiritual care. When Hurricane Irma rolled over the panhandle, Gwartney knew chaplains would have to be intentional about their service to and care of survivors.
“My role is just to push, to make sure we are intentional as chaplains because in disaster relief, we become very task oriented,” said Gwartney, whose full-time job is pastoring Stetson Baptist Church in Deland, Florida. “I have chaplains trained to handle the most difficult situations. Chaplains know how to handle things that are intense like during a disaster. My responsibility is to teach them to handle healing and hope as well.”
Many of Gwartney’s chaplains that serve stay for five or six days, go home for a week, then call Gwartney and ask when they can come back.
“It’s neat because chaplains get the importance of relational ministry,” Gwartney said. “And the intentionality has yielded amazing results.”
One 80-year-old man remembered his days as a DR volunteer. For the first time in a long time, he was the one in need of service.
“He served years ago, and his house was damaged by Irma,” said Gwartney. “He saw our crew show up in their yellow shirts, so he went and put his on from many, many years ago. Then he served alongside us. He kept telling us how neat it was to be a recipient of the love he gave years ago. There’s a cyclical nature to it.”
About 70 professions of faith have been recorded, many in thanks to the Florida Baptist chaplaincy response efforts.
“We had a police officer come to Christ right in the middle of one of our feeding kitchens,” said Gwartney. “She walked up to a disaster relief volunteer serving food and just gave her life to Christ right there. She knelt and everything!”
Gwartney attributes the communities’ receptivity to the gospel and to chaplains as a result of intentionality and service.
“If you spend six to eight hours in a person’s yard, it’s equity,” Gwartney said. “You can’t just walk up, hand them a Bible and expect a huge thank you. These survivors have been through a lot and lost a lot. But if we cut down a tree and haul it away, or mud out a home and remove damaged furniture, it gives us more permission to speak into their lives. Chaplaincy is a great ministry. One reason I got into it is to become a better listener and lover of people. I’ve learned critical skills effective to ministry.”
Compassion for Texas
Hurricane Harvey, dubbed an extremely destructive Atlantic hurricane, became the first major hurricane to make landfall in the United States since Wilma in 2005.
No major hurricane had drowned an American city in over 12 years, and for four days, it’s record rainfall inundated hundreds of thousands of homes, displaced more than 30,000 people and caused 17,000 rescues.
“I’m always amazed at God,” NAMB-endorsed chaplain Larry Moore said of the service trip he took with his wife, Debbie, and several other chaplains. “There are so many hopeless people because Harvey interrupted their lives in numerous and devastating ways. We were there for several days praying with pretty much every flood survivor we met. They asked us, too.”
Moore and his wife are both endorsed and trained chaplains in several areas. The Moores and fellow chaplain Rita Cunningham traveled southbound to serve in Spring, Texas for 10 days after Hurricane Harvey hit.
“We met Jean and her family the first full day we were there,” said Moore. “There were so many connections made that we all knew it wasn’t a coincidence we’d happened upon them. They are trying to get her dad’s home livable, so they can bring him back home. He has dementia, but my wife and I are trained in hospice chaplaincy. Jean is a retired police officer and her brother is a police officer. My wife and I also are trained in law enforcement chaplaincy. We could all relate as if we’d been friends for years.”
Each day for 10 days, God brought them people who desperately needed hope.
“Debbie and Rita walked the streets filled with flood damaged homes and they knocked on this man’s door,” Moore said. “You never know the impact of a knock. It’s a divine appointment. He told them of the struggles he and his wife had faced even before Harvey hit. It was awesome to provide hope for not just this disaster but for life in general.”
On the fourth and fifth days of serving Texans, collegiates joined the chaplains’ DR and chaplaincy efforts.
“We led eight members of the Sam Houston College softball team and four others in helping a widow whose home had flooded four feet deep,” said Moore. “They worked so hard, cutting sheetrock and insulation and hauling the old damaged interior out. They took furniture to the curb plus other ruined items.”
According to Moore, the widow had lost her husband—a pastor— after he broke his back.
“She had been feeling so hopeless,” Moore said. “Then all these college girls came and lifted her up, and she told us, ‘They gave me renewed hope.’ Young people are awesome!”
Providing hope and having instant connections to people seemed to follow the Moore Chaplains everywhere they were called to serve in Texas.
“One day, saw a lady sitting in the lobby of a food and water distribution center,” said Moore. “She looked distressed and exhausted. I gave her a water bottle and struck up a conversation with her about the tattoo on her arm. When she found out I was a biker chaplain, she said, ‘I can’t believe the Lord sent a biker chaplain to talk to me.’”
Her home had been flooded and destroyed. Her motorcycle was gone. Her husband passed away December 2016.
“I counseled her as she told me her life story,” Moore said. “The losses, the grief … I praise God I was able to counsel her about everything she was going through. In the end, she asked me to pray with her. She wanted God to turn her life around and discover God’s purpose for her life. We prayed for her. She cried. But then, she smiled and said she felt hopeful.”
Beaming, the woman left and returned only to show Moore and his team the new motorcycle someone had just given her.
“She was overwhelmed with God’s answer to her prayers and His goodness!” said Moore. “She described God’s blessing as unbelievable. And they are. Every blessing He gives is incredible, and we’ve seen a lot while serving in chaplaincy.”
To sign-up to serve with NAMB’s hurricane response efforts, sendrelief.net. To learn more about our chaplaincy initiatives, visit https://www.namb.net/chaplaincy.
Josie Bingham writes for the North American Mission Board.