When Pastor Ron Merrell stepped up to the podium to offer the opening prayer at Tuesday’s memorial service for 19 fallen firefighters, he said what many others were thinking.
“This has felt like a little bit of hell on earth this past week,” Merrell prayed. “We come before You broken and hurting and confused and numb.”
The prayer was heard by 6,000 people who packed Tim’s Toyota Center in Prescott Valley, Ariz. Inside the venue were family members of the firefighters who died, elected officials including the governor of Arizona and the Vice President of the United States, along with thousands of firefighters from around the country.
Outside, thousands more gathered around a jumbo screen to watch the service–sweat and tears dripping from their faces as they sat in the blazing sun.
And while Merrell began his prayer by expressing the agony felt within the community of Prescott, he didn’t stop there.
“We know these events find their root in our broken world, not in Your lack of love for us,” Merrell prayed. “Replace the despair with hope.”
After asking God to take care of the children of the firefighters who died and to “show up powerfully for the widows,” he prayed that the sacrifice of the Granite Mountain Hotshots would turn hearts in the direction of a loving God.
“May it remind us of the sacrifice your Son, Jesus, made on our behalf,” Merrell said.
After the prayer, more than half a dozen speakers, including several Arizona firefighters, addressed the crowd. It was impossible not to notice a theme among the speeches–each one was seasoned with Scripture.
“They just nailed the Gospel,” said Jim Cawby, Billy Graham Rapid Response chaplain coordinator. “And you could tell they were such a close-knit group.”
Cawby and six other crisis-trained chaplains were among the people gathered outside to watch the memorial service. The Rapid Response Team has had a presence in Prescott since the day after the tragic events of June 30, with chaplains offering emotional and spiritual care to the community.
They thought it was important to be there for the memorial service.
“I wouldn’t have missed it for anything,” said chaplain Edna DeFord, who has spent the last few days talking and praying with homeowners affected by the Yarnell Hill fire. DeFord lives in Goodyear, Ariz. So does her fellow chaplain, Linda O’Brien, who has been touched by the thoughtfulness of residents who lost their homes in the fire.
“They said, ‘Please pray for the firemen,'” said O’Brien. “‘They’re hurting more than us.'”
There is certainly enough hurt to go around in both Prescott and Yarnell, but residents seem determined not to let despair have the last word. The chaplains are finding the community to be extremely welcoming to prayer.
A memorial service that praised God–even in the midst of heart-wrenching grief–was just further proof of the faith that so many residents possess.
“I thought it was Christ-centered, and I was proud to be a citizen of Arizona,” O’Brien said.
As the chaplains prepare to head back to Yarnell to minister to residents, they’re asking the Lord to continue to show up in a big way for the families hurting the most.
Or, as Pastor Merrell put it during his opening prayer, they’re hoping God would use the kindness and love that’s so evident in Prescott to bring “a little bit of heaven to earth.”