As Patricia Kanwischer navigates the muddy streets of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, she’s meeting people from all walks of life. The one thing they have in common is the flood.
“This disaster is massive here,” said Kanwischer. “It’s miles and miles and miles of devastation.”
For the past week, residents of southwestern Canada have dealt with floodwaters that swept through homes, businesses and stadiums and displaced 100,000 people. According to news reports, the June flooding is the second most costly disaster in Canadian history. Entire towns have been evacuated while residents wait for the water to finally recede.
Kanwischer is one of 40 Canadian Rapid Response Team chaplains who have volunteered to deploy to Calgary and the surrounding communities to offer emotional and spiritual care to residents who are overwhelmed.
Among the people she’s encountering are a large number of immigrants from places like Nicaragua and the Philippines. Some families moved to Alberta less than two weeks ago. Others have been there long enough to establish their homes–only to see them badly damaged or destroyed by the floods.
“They came here with nothing, worked hard, and now they’ve lost it all again,” said Kanwischer. “They have no family here. They’re all overseas.”
The chaplains came across one Filipino family in downtown Calgary that suffered a major loss in the flooding.
“They were just weeping,” Kanwischer said.
They were willing to talk–at least, the woman was. The man of the house made it clear he was not interested in interacting with the chaplains.
Kanwischer was respectful of his wishes, but she kept coming back to check up on the rest of the family. It seems her gentle persistence didn’t go unnoticed.
“By the third or fourth time we were back at the house, he joined us for prayer,” Kanwischer said.
As time goes on and some of the waters recede, the chaplains are seeing hearts soften. In some cases, people who wouldn’t ordinarily acknowledge God are thinking about the possibility that He exists.
In other cases, hearts seem to be hardened. Kanwishcher came across a man who is dying from kidney failure. His wife is a Christ follower, but he wants no part of God. The chaplains, along with volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse, are rallying around the family, cleaning out their flooded home and just being there to listen.
“We went and prayed with her,” Kanwischer said. “Our hearts were just breaking for him. There’s a lot of bitterness and heartache, and I just pray that through all of this he will see God.”
One thing the entire community can’t help but see is how much the Canadian people care about their distressed neighbors. Thousands of volunteers have spent the last week helping Calgary begin the long road to recovery.
“The cleanup has been very fast,” Kanwischer said. “So many hands make light work around here lately.”
Most residents are preparing for a long holiday weekend to celebrate Canada Day on July 1. After that, reality will likely sink in, as many aide groups move out.
“Right now, the streets are full of people helping people,” said Melanie Neufeld, Canada’s Rapid Response Team manager. “Everybody’s so overwhelmed with the amount of love and response and generosity. We’re expecting a crash next week when people go back to work.”
The Rapid Response Team knows the process of cleaning up and rebuilding will be a marathon, not a sprint. The chaplains intend to stick around for the long haul.
Of the 40 chaplains ready to deploy, 18 are already working in Calgary and the surrounding towns.
Merle and Anita Doherty are serving in the community of Nanton. On their way, they drove past the devastated community of High River.
“High River is still closed, and from the highway you can see into the town,” said Merle Doherty. “There’s still water that’s six feet high. They cannot get back in yet. That’s a town of 13,000. It’s total evacuation.”
The Dohertys have found ministry opportunities simply by chatting with evacuees who are waiting in long lines to get help from the government.
“We noticed people had been standing in line five hours, six hours” said Merle Doherty.
Seeing the anger and frustration on peoples’ faces, Merle and Anita prayed for God’s peace. They also had the chance to pray with several people while they waited.
Residents of High River are particularly exasperated. They have no idea when–or if–they’ll be able to go home. Damage to the town is so severe, it may be condemned and demolished.
“Those poor folks could lose their home and then lose their community and neighborhood,” said Neufeld. “They don’t know yet. They have to wait for all the water to recede. But it’s not looking good.”
As the chaplains continue to have a presence in the Calgary area, they’re praying God will make them a light in a time of darkness and uncertainty.
“That’s why I’m here,” said Kanwischer. “That’s why we’re all here–to bring the love of Jesus, to make Him real. It’s not about us. It’s about God and his healing powers and his healing strength.
“We can’t force them to make a decision for Christ, but we can certainly impact them while bringing His presence while we’re with them.”