Sunday marked the fourth day since an explosion altered the small, close-knit town of West, Texas, forever.
A local woman driving her van through a residential neighborhood slowed down as she passed two Rapid Response Team chaplains standing on the side of the road.
“Pray for us! Please, pray for us,” she said. She never came to a full stop, but the chaplains could see she was weeping.
“The people here are asking for prayer,” said Billy Graham Evangelistic Association chaplain Judy Tefft. “They crave prayer. When one of them hurts, they’re all hurting.”
Wednesday’s deadly explosion left at least 14 people dead and 200 hurt. The blast destroyed a fertilizer plant, a nursing home and dozens of houses.
Those killed in the blast were well-loved in their community. It seems everyone who lives in West knows someone seriously affected by the tragedy. With so much grief centered on one little town, it would be easy for residents to fall into despair. But in the midst of pain, stories of faith stand out.
A restaurant that lost one if its own paused during the busy lunch rush to allow a BGEA chaplain to pray with staff and patrons.
A church located inside the blast zone could have skipped Sunday services, but the congregation set up folding chairs in a field. More than 100 people worshiped and prayed together under sunny skies.
A volunteer firefighter who felt far from God got a glimpse of the love and hope of Jesus Christ as he shared his story with a chaplain who was ready to listen.
The words “Pray for West” popped up on signs, T-shirts, and Twitter hashtags as Americans came together to show love and support for the small Texas town with a proud Czech heritage.
Through it all, BGEA’s crisis-trained chaplains have had a quiet but visible presence in West. The first chaplains arrived less than 24 hours after the explosion and plan to stick around as long as necessary to help meet the emotional and spiritual needs of a community they’ve quickly grown to respect.
“As we wander through the streets and talk to these folks, we’re finding what a tremendous spirit they have,” said Tefft. “They didn’t just jump in their cars and drive down to the next county. They ran to help.”
One young man named Brandon, whose home is on the outskirts of the blast radius, heard the explosion and took off towards the smoke and flames. He reached a caved-in nursing home where employees were frantically evacuating residents and jumped in to help.
“There were a lot of bloodied old people,” said Brandon. “We dragged a man to safety. God’s hand was over this, after seeing the way that building imploded. More people could have been killed.”
Brandon said he had been out for an evening run just minutes before the explosion happened. He had passed right by the plant, even pausing in front of it for a minute to catch his breath, but something told him to start running again. He made it home in time to not only avoid being hurt or killed, but to help save the lives of others.
“God is good,” said Brandon. “He turns bad situations into something good.”
Brandon is just one of many West residents who have shared remarkable stories with the BGEA chaplains. Members of the community are allowing the chaplains to serve them through ministry, and trust is slowly building.
As residents grapple with faith in the midst of grief, the chaplains are there. Sometimes they share prayers, hugs and tears. Other times they simply offer an ear to listen. Above all, they exude a gentle love and compassion that, they pray, will ultimately lead the lost and hurting to Jesus – the true source of healing for a town in search of peace.