Ministering after Horrific School Tragedy

By Erik Ogren   •   December 16, 2012

As dusk settled on a community in turmoil Friday night, crisis-trained chaplains from the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team arrived into Newtown, Conn. Just hours earlier, an unspeakably evil act shook the foundation of this town and left anguish and pain where there was once peace and joy.

A gunman entered a school and killed 20 children and six adults, along with his mother and himself.

“This time the tragedy is different for all of us, including the chaplains,” said Al New, deployment manager with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, who arrived at 6:30 p.m. the day of the shooting. “We’re all well-trained in what we do, but none of us have ever dealt with this many young children being killed in any tragedy like this.”

The chaplains have heard from many in the area that this can’t be happening; not in an idyllic rural area like Newtown. “We’re seeing a community of people that never would have expected anything like this tragedy to happen in a small town in Connecticut. Mainly what we’re seeing is a lot of tears, and a lot of people who are nervous about what tomorrow is going to bring,” said New.

Tragically, it did happen here, and now the hundreds of people affected are left trying to make sense of a senseless situation. Ginger Sanders, a chaplain coordinator who spent yesterday ministering to survivors, repeatedly used the word “horror” while discussing the state of those with whom she interacted.

“The horror. I met with some teachers yesterday and the horror and the shock; the disbelief and the pain,” said Sanders. “The concern for the children in their classroom that saw all of this. The ache that’s in their hearts because they still don’t really know what’s going on.”

Ministry Focus

In a small community like this, everybody has been affected one way or another. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, much of the chaplains’ ministry was focused on first responders, particularly those who were on the scene Friday morning.

“The first responders, in particular, are the ones maintaining that emotional front that they are supposed to be strong,” said chaplain coordinator Leo Grabowski, a former law enforcement officer. “But when we get them aside, they talk and break down. We’re here as a ministry of presence. Just a shoulder to lean on, a pat on the back. Just to listen, watch them and help them.”

Sanders shared her own interaction with one state trooper. “He had tears in his eyes. He said, ‘I’m a believer in Jesus Christ. The pain is still there, but I know I have comfort and hope.’ The hurt is so raw. The pain is there. We asked if we could pray for him. He said, ‘I’m on duty, but I will keep my eyes open if you will please pray.'”

In addition to the first responders, chaplains have been reaching out to the teachers, local pastors and even the counselors that were brought in to aid in the recovery. “Surprisingly, much of our ministry was to the counselors themselves,” said Grabowski. “After they hear what’s happening, they need to unload. A human being can only take so much, and when they hear these horror stories of the young children – babies – being slaughtered, it affects them. They thought they could get through it because they’ve heard things in the past, but nothing prepares anyone for the shock of this carnage.”

He added, “We’re here for the pastors and have come alongside them as well. One pastor just told me, ‘We weren’t taught this in seminary.’ As chaplains, we’re prepared just to actively listen, and – above all – to pray.”

What Do You Say?

What do you say in a time like this? What words bring comfort to those who have seen, heard, and done so much; who have witnessed such unspeakable horror?

According to the chaplains, this isn’t the time for words.

“Sometimes you don’t say anything,” said New. “You just come alongside them and let your presence be known. Just be there. Sometimes we’ll ask the officers and first responders, ‘How are you holding up?’ And we’ll just let them begin to speak and share.”

Sanders shared one example of this ministry of presence. “A teacher at the school walked by me yesterday, and she wasn’t even close to where the shots were. But I said, ‘Do you need a hug?’ She just collapsed into my arms.

“They see us come up as Billy Graham chaplains and they just know we’re here to give them love and comfort in the name of Jesus,” Sanders continued. “They need a hug, and sometimes we don’t need to say anything. Just be there for them.”

Please Pray

The chaplains ask that you pray for the people of Newtown and all those affected. Pray for the first responders, the counselors, the teachers and the pastors. Pray for all of the media outlets that are on-site. Most of all, pray for the heartbroken families who are experiencing the incalculable sorrow of losing a child in such a violent, evil way.

The chaplains all acknowledge that this deployment is incomparable, and is a struggle for them as well. They covet your prayers as they seek to minister with the hope of Christ in this disaster. Pray for them, and for their ministry.

“Pray for the town of Newtown, that God’s supernatural peace would invade their souls and spirits,” said Grabowski. “Pray for us. Pray that we would be active listeners and hear God in this, and say the right thing at the right time, knowing when to be silent.”

Franklin Graham Statement on Shooting

Recent Rapid Response Team Deployments

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70 Comments

  1. Michael says:

    I saw miracles all 5 x's deployed 4 hurricanes and 2 fires. 2007 was most recent one. I know all emergency personnel and responders need prayer as well as residents. God's Word will never come back void.

  2. Suzi says:

    He binds up the brokenhearted. Lord be with this community in the hours and days ahead. Hold them up through the Christmas season. In Jesus name. Amen

  3. Marlene says:

    Lord I thank you for holding all the children and adults in Your loving arms. Please touch the hearts of Newtown and assure them that their loved ones are very safe and loved by the grace of God. Thank you for your Son, JESUS!!!

  4. Tim says:

    Lord please restore that which the locust has devoured and even now will you comfort and walk through this deep valley with all who are suffering beyond words. Only you know what each family needs so that they can go on living. Please come soon!

  5. Cheryl says:

    Only God can provide the peace that passes all understanding. I don't know how He does it…I just know that He does. I pray that He will provide this peace to everyone touched by this horrendous act of evil.

  6. Terry says:

    We are all Gods children. I know our Lord has his hands wrapped firmly around our lost children. I pray that his comfort engulfs the family's.

  7. Wanda says:

    May God comfort each person who is in pain. Bless all who are there to help.

  8. Debee says:

    May God bless the families and friends in Newtown. May God bless all those who are there to help anyone involved. May God give you the words to say, the strength to endure the sadness. You will be blessed for all you are doing at this time. Thank yon

  9. Elizabeth says:

    As you return from Newtown, please consider also speaking out about the need for gun control and more funding for mental health practitioners and facilities. Your voices could make a difference.

  10. Pam says:

    No word seems appropriate in this time of horrible suffering of so many from loved ones torn from their lives unexpectedly. Just know many are praying for the comfort of our loving God to be poured w/o end over the broken hearted.