In the initial stages of a tragedy — like the horrific mass shooting that took place Friday morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — the emotions are incredibly raw.
“Shock and denial,” is how Al New, the Rapid Response Team deployment manager described it.
Jack and Becca Dowling, two of the most seasoned Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplains, have witnessed this first stage of grief many times as first responders of this ministry.
Less than 24 hours of the 2010 Haiti earthquake hitting, the Dowlings were ministering in Port-au-Prince. Within hours of the movie theatre shooting this summer in Aurora, Colo., the Dowlings were able to drive up from their station at the Colorado Springs wildfire to begin providing emotional and spiritual care by 7:45 a.m. that morning.
After news broke of the mass school shooting, the Dowlings were quickly in their car, heading down from their home in Maine to help in any way they can. Jack is a retired police officer.
“It’s mostly a ministry of presence,” Becca Dowling said of a chaplain’s main value in the initial stages after a tragedy. “There’s a lot of silent prayers going out. It’s not a ministry of a lot of words.”
In the hours after the Aurora shooting, Becca described the scene as “incredible intense grief,” filled with “cries and sobs and screams.”
“We don’t have the answers,” New said. “We can’t even begin to understand.”
So when a tragedy of such magnitude struck on Friday, the Rapid Response Team quickly went into motion. There is a network of more than 1,000 chaplains in 48 states across the U.S., who are all trained in CISM (Crisis Incident Stress Management) courses, recognized by Homeland Security.
But an event like Friday’s mass shooting is unique and sensitive and the best response needed to be immediate.
“We’re sending some of our most experienced chaplains to Connecticut,” New said. “These chaplains have experience dealing with shootings.”
The Dowlings were called down from Maine. Four chaplain coordinators (Dennis and Ginger Sanders and Ray and Suzanne Thompson) were summonsed from their stations in New York and New Jersey, where ministry to Hurricane Sandy victims is still ongoing.
Al and his wife Toni New, along with Leo and Barb Grabowski, flew up from Charlotte, N.C., and by Friday night 10 chaplains were in Connecticut and will be doing whatever they can to minister to those dealing with immense pain and grief, through prayer or a listening ear.
The Rapid Response Team will deploy in Connecticut for days or possibly weeks —”until God tells us it’s time to go,” New said.
“We just try to provide them some hope,” he said.