HUNTSVILLE – With immediate disaster needs like downed trees that need to be cut off of houses and thousands of people needing hot meals, it can be easy to forget a key piece to the Missouri Baptist Disaster Relief (DR) puzzle: chaplains.
John Rhodes, pastor of First Baptist, Huntsville, has been involved with DR since 2001 and as a chaplain for the past six years. In addition to being a DR chaplain, Rhodes filled that role with the Fruitland Fire Department before moving to Huntsville last fall.
“It’s an opportunity to meet people in a real way where they are,” he said. “They have immediate needs and you’re right there.”
A chaplain is more than an unofficial pastor or a team’s “official witness.”
“They’re the ‘theological expert’ for the team, but it’s just like in a church; it’s not the pastor’s job to lead people to the Lord,” said Patrick Ryan, director of missions for Missouri Valley Baptist association and a DR incident command “blue hat” (leader). “Everybody in Disaster Relief is a witness and is looking for those divine opportunities and appointments.”
Still, the personal contact with a home-owner while others are cutting down trees after an ice storm or shoveling out mud after a flood is key.
“They quickly build that relationship and show God’s love by caring,” Ryan said, “to the point where they’ve ‘earned’ the right to share the gospel. Jesus did the same thing.”
“Just being there can go a long way toward showing them the love of Christ,” Rhodes said.
Telling someone about Jesus in a first step, but chaplains also encourage disaster victims who are already believers and point those they work with to more long-term spiritual help at a local church after the disaster is over. They’re also there to counsel, assist, comfort, listen and observe the stress level of the team and the disaster victims they’re working with. One new dimension is known as “Operational Stress First Aid.”
“It’s a tool to judge the emotional and spiritual state of people and to intervene before things get too bad,” Ryan said. “One of the things we deal with is post-traumatic stress. It’s a common, normal occurrence. The object for us is to realize when people are getting into an area they can’t handle on their own.”
Another new focus for the chaplain ministry is that they are now going to be intentionally ministering to the disaster relief volunteers in addition to disaster victims. Call it “de-stressing.”
“It’s stressful,” Rhodes said. “You’re trying to cook 10,000 meals a day and things never go the way you wanted.”
The need became apparent during the response to the May 22, 2011, tornado in Joplin when volunteers often needed a caring word as they helped sort through debris and listen to heart-rending stories of loss. In the days following that disaster, chaplains walked through the morgues with family members helping to identify bodies.
In order to become a DR chaplain, one must have previous DR training in other areas as well as on-the-job experience to attend the class. In addition, chaplains need a letter of recommendation signed by their pastor or director of missions, and a signed statement concerning use of alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs. For more information, go to www.mobaptist.org/dr or call 1-800-736-6227 ext. 315.
Many chaplains are pastors, but Rhodes said the ministries are very different.
“In a disaster, you’re there for comfort,” he said. “As a pastor, you’re there to afflict sometimes. It’s also a very short-term role.