Bringing God’s Love to Gustav Survivors

By   •   September 2, 2008

The Billy Graham Rapid Response Team (RRT) has begun ministering in two locations along the Gulf Coast: Baton Rouge, La. and Donaldsonville, La.

In Baton Rouge, initial ministry will focus on those staying in shelters – more than 80,000 people are staying in 46 shelters, according to a contact at one local agency. In addition to the initial group of chaplains, several more will be brought in to meet the need. Donaldsonville is an extremely impoverished area where nearly 50 percent of those under 18 live below the poverty line.

Located approximately 30 miles from Baton Rouge, Donaldsonville received a direct hit from Hurricane Gustav which resulted in significant home damage from high winds and toppled trees. The Billy Graham Rapid Response Team and Samaritan’s Purse are working with homeowners to meet their physical and emotional needs.

“Many of the people we’ve spoken with don’t have insurance and feel like they’ve been left behind,” said Jack Munday, director of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team. “We want them to know that they aren’t forgotten and that they are loved.”

There is no current projection for the duration of this deployment to the Gulf Coast. Volunteer chaplain schedules are being finalized and chaplains will begin arriving tomorrow and over the next few days from as far away as New Mexico and California.

Sept. 1, 2008 – A mandatory evacuation order and curfew remain in effect in New Orleans, and nearly 1.4 million homes are without power in Louisiana; 92,000 in Mississippi.

Evacuees scattered across the country are anxious to return home, but New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin warned they may have to wait in shelters and motels a few days longer.

When they do return, Billy Graham Rapid Response Team (RRT) chaplains will be there to provide emotional and spiritual care.

Speaking at a press conference just moments before the team deployed from BGEA headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 1, RRT Director Jack Munday explained to the media how chaplains serve in times of disaster.

“We come alongside folks who have been devastated by the loss of possessions and, in some cases, the loss of life. We also come alongside the first responders – the police departments, the fire departments – and volunteers from other disaster relief organizations who also get weary at times like this.”

A Return Engagement

Munday isn’t sure yet what the week will bring. “As we leave in just a few moments, we don’t know for sure what is out ahead of us. But as we go, we do know this: there is going to be suffering, there is going to be need for emotional and spiritual care. These people haven’t fully recovered from the last time.”

When Hurricane Katina made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team deployed the very next day. Chaplains stayed on site until March of this year, a long-term commitment that will benefit the team now.

“We have relationships throughout the Gulf Coast region with law enforcement agencies, government officials and fire departments,” Munday explained, “It is a huge benefit when you go back and you already have those contacts. As we leave today, we’ve already been talking to these people. They are waiting on us and they will help us identify where we need to be.”

In addition to providing spiritual help, the RRT facilitates practical assistance – giving homeowners the right number to call at FEMA, for example. “Already today I was on a conference call with other disaster relief organizations that will be providing food and shelter,” Munday said.

First Steps

In the first few weeks after Katrina, the RRT spread across eight states and 19 cities. “We have a multitude of choices,” said Munday, “because of the relationships we have built over the last three years with a number of churches down there.”

Since Hurricane Katrina, the Rapid Response Team has provided training to numerous churches across the nation. “It has been a stimulus to churches to train crisis ministry teams, and in doing so, partnering with BGEA. It is a great partnership model we are building all over the country with other churches.”

From left: Chaplains Keith Stiles, Marilyn Sides & Les Palmer

Marilyn Sides is one chaplain already acquainted with the Gulf Coast region. After Katrina, she moved to Biloxi, Miss., and ministered for almost two years. “I had a full-time grief ministry in Charlotte,” said Sides, “but the Lord laid it on my heart to close it up and go to Mississippi. There was more grief going on there than anywhere else. My heart is still down there, and so I’m going back.”

Les Palmer from Albuquerque, N.M., also traveled to New Orleans when Katrina hit. He spent 21 months out of the first two years down in the Gulf – three weeks out of every month.

He shared why he feels compelled to return: “I do it because God put it on my heart to do it. I was sitting on my couch in San Diego on Labor Day weekend three years ago and I was watching the people walk through the floods and I was just brought to tears. I cried out to God and said, ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me.’ I love to be able to share the hope and love of Jesus Christ and bring His presence in the midst of a crisis. That’s my heart’s desire.”

Listening in Love

Sharing the hope of Christ is the bedrock of the RRT ministry. “God is greater than any hurricane,” said Munday. “We know that He is there to provide hope and comfort to people.”

Chaplains spend a great deal of time listening. “That’s our mission – to hear the stories,” Munday added. “People who go through difficult times want to talk about it. We ask that wonderful leading question, ‘How are you holding up?’ It’s amazing to see people lean toward us and want to tell their story. We are there to listen to them and to bring them God’s hope and comfort and answer their questions. We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we do know the love of God is there for these people to help them.”

In the midst of disaster, Munday explained, the RRT offers encouragement and hope to people who are battling grief, shock, denial, depression and anger. “They are looking for answers and need to recognize that, ultimately, the only answer in life is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Sometimes it seems that “God shows up the best in times that are the worst,” Munday said. “It’s not that God changes, but I think people’s hearts open up to who He is, and they start asking the God questions.”

Hope in Christ Alone

People in crisis quickly realize they are not where they need to be in their relationship with the Lord. “It isn’t something we need to tell them,” said Munday, “but God reveals to them there is something more to life than houses and cars and boats – and that something is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

On numerous deployments, said Munday, “people have come up to us, just walking by and seeing the name Billy Graham on our shirts, and tell the chaplains, ‘I am not where I need to be with the Lord. I haven’t been to church in 10 years but I know I need to. I want to. What do I need to do to get right with the Lord?’

“It’s been an amazing experience to see what God does,” Munday added. “That is the hope that we have. We do it in such a way that it’s appropriate. It isn’t about preaching, it isn’t about tracts. It’s about listening and being available.”

How to Pray

  • Please pray for the community of Donaldsonville, which is extremely poor. Local leaders told the RRT that incest, rape and teen pregnancy are widespread.
  • Pray that the light and hope of Christ will shine in the midst of this community where tragedy is a part of daily life.
  • Pray for the safety of the Rapid Response Team as they serve.
  • Please pray for the Donaldsonville mayor’s assistant, Lincoln Moore, who suffered a stroke.
  • Finally, pray for the leaders in these areas, that they will have wisdom, compassion and courage in the aftermath of Gustav.

Related Stories

Statement by Billy Graham on Hurricane Katrina »
Where was God in Hurricane Katrina? »
Caring in Christ’s Name »
Billy Graham Rapid Response Team Chaplains Reach Out to Hurricane Survivors »
Ministering Christ’s Presence »

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