Grogan, discipleship pastor at East Lake Community Church, had spent two days making sure that people in his congregation were safe and would have somewhere to go if they were displaced by the fires. Now his own vehicle sat in the garage, packed with essential items in case he and his family needed to flee.
In the end, Grogan didn’t need to evacuate. But like many churches in southern California, his church wasted no time when wildfires began to threaten neighborhoods–even their own. The church sent an e-mail blast to its entire database, asking three questions: Have you been displaced by the fire? Are you willing to host someone who has been displaced? Do you have any other needs?
“To me, the church is being what the church is supposed to be,” said Grogan, who had been helping to lead East Lake through a five-week series of messages about believers making a difference in the world. “It is not a coincidence that this is what we’ve been speaking into our body of believers. … Our hearts were ready to respond when this happened.”
The Billy Graham Rapid Response Team was ready to respond, too. When the wildfire situation became dire for many residents of San Diego County on Oct. 21, the Team made preparations to deploy chaplains and coordinators to the area. Chuck and Sandy Bender, of San Juan Capistrano, worked with Jack Munday, BGEA’s director of church ministry projects, to assemble volunteers and identify locations for ministry.
As more than 500,000 people were evacuated from their homes, chaplains visited emergency shelters. They provided a listening ear and prayed with many; they also performed services such as cleaning restrooms and tracking down necessary items such as towels and diapers.
Several thousand people were housed temporarily at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium. One of those was a woman named Diane, who had moved to California from New Jersey two months earlier. She had come to California looking for a new start in life and had bought a home. Now, her hopes were dashed. She began walking toward her car, where she planned to commit suicide. She saw a chaplain wearing a blue shirt that said “Billy Graham Chaplain” and began to cry.
“There is no hope at the evacuation center,” she said. “What can you do for me?” The chaplain spoke with her for about 30 minutes, offering the hope and comfort of Jesus. “Why do I need Jesus?” she asked. The chaplain responded, “With Jesus and the Holy Spirit you will have the hope and assurance that this world cannot give you.” Diane prayed to accept Christ, and the chaplain led her back into the stadium, to an area where she could receive further help.
Chaplain coordinators Phil and Pam Rhodes went to a neighborhood destroyed by fire and began talking with a young man who was helping his sister sift through the ashes of her home. Noticing that the chaplains’ shirts said “Billy Graham,” the young man said, “Praise the Lord that you are here.” He told them he is a Christian and that his sister is a single mother with four children. The sister, also a Christian, joined the conversation. The chaplains asked if they could pray for her. “Of course,” she responded. Neighbors working in the ashes nearby saw the chaplains ready to pray, and one by one they came to join the group. Eventually 17 people stood together in a circle, praising God in the middle of the street. Chaplains remarked that this was an example of God bringing beauty from the ashes–literally.
For many people, the first few days were full of shock and confusion. Many didn’t know whether their homes had survived, and they were unsure what to do or where to go. Chaplains provided checklists of practical steps to take, such as calling one’s insurance company, mortgage company and post office. They also distributed sheets with contact information for FEMA, a government agency that will determine who is eligible for government assistance.
One chaplain with a unique perspective is San Diego firefighter Jim Giannestras. He and his wife, Sandy, had deployed in the past as RRT chaplains to areas affected by hurricanes Rita and Katrina, but now they were ministering in their own community. Jim fought the wildfires for four days, then was relieved of duty and put in four days as a chaplain with the RRT. He planned to continue serving as a chaplain between each shift at his job.
Jim and Sandy went to the very neighborhood in Rancho Bernardo where Jim and his firefighting crew had fought to save houses from the flames. Jim and Sandy offered comfort and prayer to many–and they also met Christians who were demonstrating remarkable faith and love in the midst of loss.
A woman in her 80s was just coming home after having suffered a stroke, but her house had been reduced to ashes. As her son and daughter-in-law sifted through the rubble, Jim and Sandy spoke with the woman. With still-slurred speech from her stroke, the woman said, “I know God will never give me more than I can handle, so I guess that means I can handle this.”
On that same street, Jim and Sandy spoke with Josh, a young man whose house also was destroyed. As they spoke, a neighbor named Steve came up the street. He hugged Josh and said, “I want you to know we’re praying for you. We’re so sorry for your loss.” Steve had a truckload of clothing and toys, and he was distributing the items to neighbors who have small children.
As Josh received some of the items for his family, he asked, “How is your home, Steve?”
“It’s gone,” Steve replied.
“Have you taken care of your insurance and your call to FEMA?”
“No,” Steve said. “The first thing I wanted to do is make sure the families are OK.”
Recalling the experience, Jim marvels at believers who have lost most of their earthly possessions but continue to demonstrate the love of Christ.
“The churches are stepping up,” he said. “And it totally breaks down any kind of denominational barrier that might exist. There is no distinction. It’s like, ‘Wow, you’re here representing the Lord. You’re here to help. Thank you for coming here to help.'”
Franklin Graham visited the area Oct. 31 and spent time talking and praying with people who lost their homes, including Carole Morton, a high school counselor who works with some 100 students whose homes were destroyed.
By Nov. 11, more than 160 Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplains had ministered in the wildfire areas, often working alongside Samaritan’s Purse disaster crews that were helping people clear the rubble from their property. Chaplains had prayed with 1,300 people, and 67 had made commitments to Jesus Christ.
A Comforting Presence in Crandon, Wis.
Just a few weeks before the wildfires in California, the Rapid Response Team deployed to the small town of Crandon, Wis., which was rocked Oct. 7 when 20-year-old sheriff’s deputy Tyler Peterson shot and killed six people and wounded another before taking his own life. Two of the victims were high school students; all the victims were between 14 and 20 years old.
RRT coordinators and chaplains ministered in the area Oct. 8-22. They prayed individually with 846 people, including family members and friends of the victims and of the shooter, law enforcement officers, local business owners, students, teachers and others. The town’s population is about 1,900, and most residents knew those who had been involved in the shooting.
Chaplains listened as residents told their stories of grief and pain, and they gently offered the hope of Christ. Seven people received Christ, and two rededicated their lives to Christ.
For some, the shootings brought out issues that had existed long before. One woman said that she has been angry with God since her son was diagnosed with autism two years ago. She said that she is ashamed to go to church and worship while holding anger toward God in her heart. The chaplains encouraged her, and she prayed to rededicate her life to Jesus. The following day she saw one of the chaplains and said, “Things are much better. Please thank the others for being there for me!”
Another woman, who has had little contact with any church, was eager to talk with chaplains about the Lord. She prayed to receive Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. “I feel so good!” she said after the prayer. Later that afternoon, with excitement in her voice, she told a Christian co-worker, “I invited God into my heart today!”
Bill Farr, pastor of the Praise Chapel Community Church, expressed appreciation for the chaplains’ presence and said that following the first of five funerals he conducted for victims, he and his wife received 26 messages on their phone, and half of the callers mentioned the blessing the chaplains had been to the community.