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Emergency? Pastoral help is rapidly at hand

19 August 2016

Emergency chaplains in blue polo shirts are seen increasingly after natural disasters and terror attacks around the world. Tim Wyatt found out more


Comforting arm: in the aftermath of wildfires

Comforting arm: in the aftermath of wildfires

IN NICE at the end of last month, the Revd Sandra Prudom would get up each day, pull on a distinctive blue polo shirt, and make her way to the Promenade des Anglais.

She would walk along the picturesque seafront to a garden at one end, where the flowers and memorials to the victims of the lorry attack have been placed. There she offered tissues or bottles of water to some of those who stopped to grieve and reflect. If they wanted to talk, she would listen.

Her efforts to bring Christian comfort to a city recovering from a terrorist attack, were not random, however, but part of an international effort. She was “deployed” to Nice as part of a group from the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team (RRT), a project that sends volunteer chaplains to minister to communities after tragic events, from natural disasters to terrorist incidents.

The RRT was founded by Billy Graham’s son Franklin after the 11 September attacks in New York. Since then, about 2000 chaplains have been deployed to 260 crises across the world. The blue-shirted volunteers have arrived after earthquakes in Ecuador, political violence in Kenya, tsunamis in Japan, police shootings in the United States, and, increasingly, terrorist attacks in Europe.

Twelve chaplains, from Britain, the US, and Canada, were sent with Mrs Prudom to Nice in the aftermath of the attack on the Promenade, which left 85 people dead (News, 22 July) and injured 307. They stayed two or three weeks: some went home, but others moved on to Munich after an 18-year-old man shot dead nine people and injured 35 others. One of the Nice team was a priest from Brussels who had first encountered RRT chaplains after Islamic State (IS) suicide bombers launched an attack on his own city earlier this year.

At the moment, chaplains are praying with people with people in Milwaukee in the US after a police shooting triggered civil unrest, and Louisiana, where flooding has left six people dead and thousands homeless.

In Nice, Mrs Prudom said, the chaplains sought to provide a “ministry of presence”.

“We go to the garden; we engage people in conversation if they want to,” she said in an interview earlier this month. “Quite a number of people, we have discovered, want to talk and express what they are feeling, and it is not always appropriate to do that to a family member. We were talking to a lady last night who was sobbing inconsolably. She said she hadn’t got caught up in it and her friends were spared, but she was just so heartbroken for the families.”

As well as the shock, there were more practical concerns. Many of the waiters who worked at restaurants along the Promenade — including some who had used tablecloths to cover the bodies of those killed on that Bastille Day evening — lost their jobs because tourist numbers have plummeted since the attack.

Mrs Prudom said: “We have heard some amazing stories and some heart-breaking ones. There have been a few people expressing anger at God, but more shock and confusion and ‘How could this happen here?’ In the last couple of days there has been a lot more of ‘This is the new normal’.”

The deployment co-ordinator in the UK, Nigel Fawcett-Jones, said that many chaplains came from backgrounds as church leaders, but it was not uncommon to have volunteers who were police officers, firefighters, or medical professionals.

It is an openly Christian ministry, but he says that they have had a very positive response from various authorities in Britain since the scheme was set up here in 2009. About 35 local authorities had now included the RRT in their plans for responding to emergencies or disasters, Mr Fawcett-Jones said, and others were keen to have their help, including his own council in Shipley, West Yorkshire.

When the area was hit by flooding just after Christmas, he and other chaplains descended on the region to offer support to those forced from their homes by the rising waters. “The local ward officer realised that, although the local authority were very good at dealing with the practical issues, there was a big gap in their provision for the emotional and spiritual needs of the disaster victims,” he said. “Giving people an opportunity to talk about what has happened, and the emotional aspects of being out of your home for several months — that’s not how a local council would respond.”

After being invited in by the council, some chaplains are still in contact with those they listened to and prayed with, more than six months after the flooding.

Chaplains are trained to be strictly neutral, the organisation states, offering prayer and support for anyone of any faith or none. This approach was important, especially in the US where chaplains are sent to the fractious aftermaths of police shootings. As protests and counter-demonstrations filled the streets of cities such as Ferguson in Missouri and Baton Rouge in Louisiana, the chaplains’ truck, offering refreshments and space to reflect, had become a haven, widely used by both police officers and activists marching against law enforcement, Mr Fawcett-Jones said. He is himself a serving police officer. “I think that the non-challenging neutral view has really been a presence for Christ in the midst of everything that’s going on.”

He insists that the chaplains do not proselytise. “We are very conscious that proselytising is a bit of a red flag,” he said. “But there is a big difference between proselytising and being able to give an answer to the hope we have, which the Bible calls us to do. People often ask me, ‘Why do you do this? Why have you travelled from the other side of the country?’ We can say, ‘We want to stand with you and we want you to know that, as a person of faith, I am called to be here with you.’”

An initial assessment team of chaplains can be on the scene within 24 hours, but deployments take place only at the invitation of, and in collaboration with, local churches or authorities. A local-church connection was important to show people that the chaplains were not simply offering five minutes of attention or a quick prayer, but wanted to support those suffering for the long haul, Mr Fawcett-Jones said.

“A few years ago, we could go a few years with no deployments,” he said, but this was no longer the case. “That is a sad reflection of the times we live in.”


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