When a group of crisis-trained chaplains from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association arrived just outside West, Texas Thursday night, they knew they would come across people affected by the deadly explosion that shook the region only 24 hours earlier.
They just didn’t know their first encounter would happen so soon.
Hoping to grab a bite to eat, the Rapid Response Team chaplains surveyed dozens of brightly lit restaurant signs off Interstate 35 in Hillsboro. For some reason, The Black Eyed Pea seemed to stand out.
“That was definitely a God incidence of ‘ministry-on-the-way,’ ” said BGEA chaplain coordinator Sandy Bender. “We could have chosen several restaurants in the area, and that’s where we were led to go.”
Inside, Bender and her husband, Chuck, quickly realized they had been placed right in the midst of heartbreaking grief.
The employees of The Black Eyed Pea had lost one of their own — a 26-year-old man who had worked at the restaurant for the better part of seven years. Jerry Chapman was killed while responding to the fire-turned-explosion at West Fertilizer as a volunteer firefighter/EMT. His death left his coworkers, including his devastated girlfriend, reeling.
“They were all grieving,” said Sandy Bender. “It had just been 24 hours, and they were there at work.”
A young restaurant employee named Mindy told the chaplains what happened. They began to get to know each other over dinner. When it was time to call it a night, Mindy asked if they would come back the next day.
“They were in real need,” said Sandy Bender. “They asked us to come back and do a prayer in the morning for them before they started their work day.”
Friday morning, before the restaurant opened its doors to the public, the chaplains returned. One by one, a dozen employees appeared from behind kitchen doors and circled up in the dining room, hand-in-hand.
“We were sent here for you,” said chaplain coordinator Desi Perez. “Please, don’t deny us the chance to help. We are available to you 24/7.”
Heads bowed as the chaplains began to pray for the staff in the name of Jesus. A tear made a tiny splash on the tiled floor as Chapman’s girlfriend remembered the kind, generous man who had always made her laugh.
“We were able to minister to his girlfriend and all of his coworkers,” said Sandy Bender. “We cried and held them and prayed for them. We told them it’s going to be a rough road ahead, but the Lord is with them, and He will hold them by the hand and take them along this journey.”
Throughout the day, the chaplains stumbled upon one divine appointment after another. A man named Jack, who had been knocked off his feet by the blast, just needed an ear to listen and some words of encouragement.
“He was at his wit’s end,” said Sandy Bender. “He was very frustrated. He’s never experienced anything like this. He’s going through stages of grief and stress and trauma and loss.”
When she offered to pray for him, his answer was a resounding, “Yes!”
“We prayed the Lord would give him strength and patience,” said Sandy Bender. “We prayed for his health. We thanked the Lord that he was saved from the blast.”
Perhaps no one is experiencing quite as much grief as the first responders who lost so many of their own. Firefighters, EMTs and law enforcement officers continue to work around the clock in the small, closely-knit Texas town, and they need prayer, too.
Friday afternoon, Desi and Carolin Perez saw an opportunity to bless a pair of law enforcement officers guarding the perimeter of the blast site. God used a simple conversation to open doors. Soon, the two chaplains had their arms around the state trooper and sheriff’s deputy, who had removed their hats and bowed their heads to pray.
Desi Perez said they were very receptive to prayer and quick to open up to the chaplains after hearing they were part of a Billy Graham ministry.
“They were thankful,” he said.
Back at the Black Eyed Pea, there was also a sense of thankfulness towards the little group of strangers that came through the door carrying the love of Jesus.
“It was no mistake, you walking in here,” Mindy told the chaplains. “God has His hand on all of us. He saw us hurting, and He sent people.”
“I agree absolutely on that,” said Sandy Bender. “We needed to be there. It was a God-ordained appointment. He led us there, and we’ll be going back.”