Most of the 10 crisis-trained chaplains responding to the Black Forest wildfire in Colorado have seen their share of natural disasters. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes–you name it, they’ve probably experienced it.
Still, they say there’s something different about a fire.
“Unless it’s an EF-5 tornado that wipes a home off its foundation, there is something left in these other disasters,” said chaplain Mike Mattingly. “In this forest fire, there’s nothing left. There’s nothing for these folks to come back to and hold on to. There’s a complete restart of their lives that’s going to have to take place.”
Hundreds of homeowners are returning to their Colorado Springs addresses to find not only their houses gone–but the surrounding forest as well.
“When you look out from the driveways of peoples’ homes, it all looks like blacktop,” said chaplain coordinator Pat Geyer. “The forest is devastated, so even if they’d want to consider coming back and starting over–there’s no beauty there. There’s nothing to draw them back.”
As residents begin to wrap their heads around the most destructive fire in Colorado history, the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team is there, first and foremost, to listen. The chaplains call it a ministry of presence.
“We want to come alongside them and listen to them,” said Mike Mattingly, who is serving with his wife, Pookie. “They have a story and a broken heart, and they need to share it with somebody. If we can just come in there and keep our mouths shut and be patient, conversation can go almost anywhere.”
That’s what chaplain Toni New found as she stood next to a long line of cars at a distribution center for displaced residents.
“Different homeowners were coming in to get supplies and water,” said New. “I just felt like I should greet them in their cars.”
Toni New and her husband, Al, know what it’s like to lose everything. Their home burned down in 2006. So, when a man pulled up to pick up some supplies, Toni was gentle as she asked about his home.
The man told her the house was still standing, but his family had lost a lot of valued belongings in some outbuildings that burned. He insisted that he was doing OK but said his wife was having a hard time.
Sensing that there might be a little more to the story, New carefully asked how he was really holding up, explaining that she was a chaplain with Billy Graham.
“The tears started coming out of his eyes,” said New. “He said, ‘I’m retired military, and men aren’t supposed to cry.’ And I said, ‘It’s OK to cry,’”
New told him where he could go to get help from Samaritan’s Purse volunteers and Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplains.
“I told him, ‘If you or your wife need anything, you can find us there,’” said New. He said, ‘And I can come there to pray if I need to, can’t I?’ He was just the sweetest man, just so kind. And we prayed together.”
The chaplains are finding the people of Colorado Springs are open to prayer, but they’re treading lightly–respecting the grief and loss felt by homeowners who no longer have a home.
“We come to them in a place of humility and servanthood to provide that emotional care,” said Geyer. “And that gently moves us, most often, into the spiritual care. Our ultimate goal is to bring them closer to the Lord.”
The team has already come across residents who are thinking more about their relationships with God. Something about surviving such a large-scale disaster brings spirituality to the forefront. But they know it’s only through the Lord that any progress is made.
“I think it’s important to realize when the chaplains are out there working, that it’s all by the grace of God that these homeowners tell us anything about where they are spiritually,” said Geyer. “It’s the Lord doing all the work here. All the stories and successes are about God.”
The chaplains say they are simply the hands and feet on the ground.
“God uses our loss that we go through,” said New. “God uses that to give us compassion and help us understand what people go through when they lose people and things that are important to them. I use our loss to help me have compassion to minister and to show them that God does care.”
The Bible says that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). As the chaplains continue their deployment in Colorado, they’re trusting the Lord, even in the midst of a devastating trial, to bring hope and good out of the ashes.