Chaplain Teams on the Ground in New Jersey

By   •   November 1, 2012

The waters have yet to subside in parts of New Jersey, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy still evident and toxic in the streets of many resort towns up and down the outer banks of this state.

Garbage cans, lawn chairs, even small boats lined litter-filled 52nd Street in Ocean City, N.J. Sand dunes, taller than your head, hunkered at the corners of large beach homes. Some streets remained impassable, holding several feet of sand.

Only a few stilts of a landmark boardwalk remain.

Across New Jersey, more than 2 million people remained without power with at least 12 people killed by the largest Atlantic Ocean storm in recorded history.  More than 6,000 people remained in shelters.

But help has arrived — at least in three different N.J. spots.

Tandem teams from the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team alongside Samaritan’s Purse have fanned out through the state, with only one goal in mind — helping those in need, in the name of Jesus Christ.

“We dare not attempt this in our own strength,” Rapid Response Team deputy director Scott Holmquist said. “This is all for the glory of God.”

Linwood, N.J., in the south, Toms River in the central and Moonachie in the north are the starting points for ministry work, which will last for weeks, if not months.

Job one is to locate where the needs are most. After that, the work can begin in earnest. First the physical needs are met, which often times naturally morphs into emotional/spiritual ministry.

“Everything is upside down for these homeowners,” Rapid Response Team chaplain coordinator Chuck Bender said. “Nothing makes sense. It’s all dirty and moldy in there — what do you do?”

‘Sizing Up the Situation’

With tens of millions affected by this storm across the mid-Atlantic and northeast, including more than 70 deaths reported, figuring out exactly where to help is a intricate process, to say the least.

First, you locate the need — no small task in this case. Then the process of finding a host church to set up camp begins. The Samaritan’s Purse program manager, along with the chaplain coordinators, will sit down with the church leadership and explain in detail the team’s needs to the host church to see if God is moving in that direction.

In between, both the Rapid Response Team and Samaritan’s Purse are jointly meeting with key city officials to gauge the needs and cooperation from the city.

“It’s controlled chaos,” Chuck Bender said. “What we’re doing right now is sizing up the situation. We have to see how much damage to determine how many chaplains we’ll need. Then we’ll start the recovery phase.”

The chaplains will start combing the streets of the disaster area — in this case a 35-mile radius from Linwood, N.J., — zeroing in on which neighborhoods took the brunt of the storm.

Tony McNeil, one of the program managers and frontline responders for Samaritan’s Purse, has the challenge of quickly discerning where the relief effort will take place. 

“God really opened the doors today,” McNeil said Wednesday night. “Until God does His thing, it can be a two-to-three day anxiety attack.

“You don’t know how you’re going to do it. You go to bed asking God to take control and then He starts opening the doors.”

Within minutes of arriving in Linwood, N.J., — just south of Atlantic City — McNeil and the chaplains met with the city’s fire chief and were able to pray and minister to him, along with some of the church leadership.

“The fire chief just so happens to be a deacon at the church we’re staying,” Chuck said. “And he just so happens to be the head of emergency management in Linwood.”

Just so happens? Chuck laughs to himself. He’s seen this all too often.

“That’s God moving ahead of us.”

‘It Doesn’t Make Any Sense’

Matthew was at work in Philadelphia when he heard the news on Wednesday: The bridge to Ocean City was opening to residents and he could finally see how the home he’s owned since 2005 survived Sandy.

“As soon as I heard they were letting people on the Island, I couldn’t sit around,” he said. “I took a day off work.”

But he arrived to find his front steps completely blown away.

His neighbor Betty kindly informed him of the whereabouts of his 16-foot long steps (a half block away). His 3 1/2-feet Alberta Spruce bushes were a little over a block down the road. And his garbage cans were probably hanging around on 52nd street, along with so many others.

“The last big storm was in 1962,” said Matthew of the March nor’easter storm that killed 40 people, and like Sandy also slammed the coast at high tide. “My parents talk about it a lot.”

Several blocks inland, Matthew’s house, along with most of his neighbors escaped severe damage. Both his immediate neighbors — Jack and Betty along with Al and Ilene — are year-rounders who decided not to evacuate for Sandy.

“The left for Irene, but they thought they could ride this one out,” Matthew said. “It was 8:15 and dark out when it came through. It was pretty eerie.”

Other locals heard similar stories where their friends or neighbors braved this storm, only to have floods rush in and quickly rise waist-high.

“I don’t think they’ll stay again,” one resident said.

And the pattern of destruction that Sandy left behind defies logic. Residents who filed in and out of a local coffee shop, exchanged reports of their damages as if they were pleasantries.

“I was lucky,” one resident said.

“I talked to my neighbor a block-and-a-half-away and she didn’t have any flooding,” one Ocean City resident said. “And here I am, tearing out drywall. It doesn’t make any sense.”

‘The Healing Starts’

No strangers to deploying to flood disasters, Chuck and Sandy started as chaplains with Katrina in 2005 and have been chaplain coordinators since 2007.

Over the past two years, they’ve deployed to the Tuscon, Ariz., shooting, flooding in Binghamton, N.Y., Minot, N.D., and Wayne, N.J., and wildfires in New Mexico and Oklahoma.

One thing they’ve seen that’s a constant, regardless of the disaster, is that once a person’s physical needs are met, the walls almost immediately come down. Their hearts become tender and they sometimes quickly talk about their spiritual needs.

“They can’t believe we’re doing this all for free,” Chuck said. “Samaritan’s Purse comes in and does a great job. It’s Rolls Royce, I tell ya. You can eat off the floors they’re so clean.

“Then the residents come back into their house and their countenance changes.”

They suddenly have a starting point to rebuild their lives. In many cases, it’s the first point where they see how they’ll get through this storm.

“That’s when the cleansing and the healing starts to take place,” Chuck said.

With chaplain coordinators setting up logistics, volunteer crisis-trained chaplains will soon be sent to the three different deployment areas. So far, more than 120 chaplains across the country have responded to a call to deploy to Hurricane Sandy.

Once on site, chaplains will be available to provide spiritual and emotional care, lifting up the storm survivors, the Samaritan’s Purse workers as well as the local church body with prayer, Scripture and encouragement.

“We want to personally be spiritually ready,” Holmquist said. “There will be spiritual opposition.”

But when you let the Holy Spirit work through you?

“It’s really a wonderful experience to minister to people and come along side of them,” Sandy said. “The Lord just blesses your socks off.”

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