As the dust settles in West, Texas, following an explosion that left the entire town in mourning, families are beginning the difficult process of burying their dead.
Thursday, Rapid Response Team chaplains attended a memorial service in nearby Waco, Texas, to pay their respects to the 14 people killed in the April 17 blast.
The 10 crisis-trained Billy Graham Evangelistic Association chaplains deployed to West have had a gentle presence in the community for the past week. They’ve prayed with more than 200 people in restaurants, bakeries and damaged homes. It seems everywhere they go, they come across someone who is hurting or asking for prayer.
That includes the lobby of the Hillsborough hotel where the chaplains spent their first week. Thursday morning, chaplain coordinators Chuck and Sandy Bender met several family members of firefighters who were killed. They were in town for the memorial service in Waco.
Chuck Bender, who spent 33 years as a firefighter, had a chance to talk with the father of a 29-year-old volunteer fire captain killed in the blast.
“We talked for about 40 minutes at breakfast,” said Chuck Bender. “They thanked us for what we were doing.”
A short time later, as the Benders were checking out of the hotel to relocate to a nearby church camp, they ran into the same family, all dressed up and ready to attend their son’s memorial service.
Chuck felt like the Lord wanted him to share a Bible verse that has been close to his heart for many years.
“It wasn’t me,” said Chuck Bender. “God just kind of spoke to my heart.”
He gently approached the father of the fallen fire captain.
“I just said, ‘These two verses have really meant a lot of me as a firefighter.’ ”
He shared Isaiah 57:1-2.
The righteous perish, and no one takes it to heart; the devout are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil.
Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death. (NIV)
“You could just see his demeanor kind of say, ‘Thank you,’ ” said Chuck Bender.
The Spirit of God seemed to be working in that hotel lobby; the Benders had the opportunity to pray with about 15 people there Thursday morning alone. In a town that’s been deeply wounded, prayer continues to lift the people up and show them God cares about their pain.
“God is so gracious,” said Chuck Bender. “They see us praying for them with dignity and respect. We don’t come in, beat them up and tell them they’re sinners. We just show them the love of Christ.”
One way the chaplains have share that love is through gifts of Bibles to the families of those killed. They presented family Bibles at two funeral services Thursday for firefighters who died.
“The wife of one of the firemen was greeting everyone who came,” said Chuck Bender. “I went up to her and told her I was a retired fireman. I said, ‘There’s no words I can say, just that I’m sorry.’ She thanked us so much for coming out. She was very grateful that we were there.”
The chaplains also attended the funeral of a young volunteer firefighter and restaurant employee, Jerry Chapman. For the past week, chaplains have ministered to the staff of the Black Eyed Pea, where Chapman worked. Thursday, they met his parents.
“We were able to present them with a Bible,” said Sandy Bender. “They are firm believers in Christ, and she was so grateful for the Bible given in his memory to them. She said this is what is getting them through now – their belief in Christ, and knowing he’s in heaven in the Lord’s arms, and they will one day see him again. That is the hope they have.”
The town of West is still reeling, but the chaplains are discovering glimmers of hope around every corner. Even as residents approach them on the street to thank them, the Benders say they are the privileged ones. They get to see God in action in the midst of tragedy as they slowly cultivate relationships with the people of West.
“It doesn’t happen right away,” said Chuck Bender. “It’s not instant, but when we’re here, we’re here to help. Slowly, they realize that, and the grace of God always prevails.”