Chaplains know the look well. They see it on faces across the country as people – many of whom were already dealing with hardships – reach the point of complete hopelessness in the midst of a disaster.
They saw the same despair on Justin’s* face as they stepped onto his flood-saturated lawn.
“He was like a typical person that you walk up to who is facing a tragedy,” said Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplain Billy Watson of Lebanon, Ohio. “There’s just a darkness there.”
“We were there to comfort Justin,” added chaplain Louis Smith, a pastor from nearby Mooresville, NC. “We didn’t know anything about him. Our mission, our sole mission, was to comfort him, whatever that meant.”
The Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplains were in North Carolina’s Catawba County, an area that was recently wracked by historic flooding. Alongside Samaritan’s Purse, the two ministries seek to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs in communities that have been affected by disasters.
“As we began speaking with him, there were two things he was obviously proud of,” said Smith. “One was his home. He shared that he had wired it himself. He had put the drywall up. All the things he had done.
“And then he said that his mother had taken him to church. It was obvious that the two things that were most important to him were his mother – who died nine years ago – and his home.”
Justin has lived alone in the house since his mother’s passing.
The chaplains asked Justin questions about the flood waters that rose out of a nearby creek, and he shared that he sat in the house as the water level rose deeper and deeper around him. With his situation growing increasingly dangerous, he ripped a hole through the screen on his back porch and swam to higher ground.
“As we were talking you could see his eyes turning back as virtually everything he owned was carried out to the curb by Samaritan’s Purse volunteers. One load at a time; one wheelbarrow at a time; one television at a time. Everything he owned in the house he had virtually built himself was going out to the street.”
The three men continued to visit, holding Justin and comforting him. Eventually the conversation turned to spiritual matters. Justin remembered his mother bringing him to church, and was questioning his own eternity after having survived his harrowing swim through murky flood waters that claimed everything he had left in his life.
Watson shared with him what the Bible says about sin, death, and eternal life through Jesus. He then gently let Justin know that the choice was his, but offered that he could pray a prayer with him if he wanted to place his faith in Christ.
“I started praying, and he jumped right into it. He started saying every word with boldness, which really surprised me,” said Watson, referring to Justin’s meek and quiet demeanor up to that point. “I thought he might say it under his breath a little, but actually I thought he was saying it a little louder than I was.
“When we finished I could literally see his demeanor and his physical appearance on his face begin to change. There was a bondage of hopelessness there, and you could see that floating away and a joy replacing it that wasn’t there before.”
Added Smith, “I was expecting that when he said he was going to pray, that he would silently pray. But it was like he had a bullhorn; like he could not wait for the next sentence to come out. It was opposite of the demeanor that he had the whole time.”
Afterwards the chaplains learned that Justin, who is in his late 40s, had never owned a Bible. They happily offered to give him one as he began his new life in Christ. However, they were reminded that when a Samaritan’s Purse crew finishes work on a house, they too provide a Bible that has been signed by all of the workers.
Watson and Smith signed that Bible and left it with the Samaritan’s Purse team leader to give to Justin later, and they walked back to their vehicle.
“Justin hadn’t moved very fast while we’d been there, but he sprinted to us, saying, ‘Don’t forget my Bible! Don’t forget my Bible!'” said Smith. It was evident to the chaplains that his prayer was sincere, and he was ready to learn more about his newfound faith.
*name has been changed to protect privacy