“Probably 70 percent of the people are already going through a crisis of their own, so this is on top of everything else,” said Barb Grabowski, a chaplain coordinator with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team. She’s seated at a table inside a church in Fort Myers, Florida, where she’s helping guide the efforts of a handful of chaplains in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
The storms of life—addiction, relationship issues, financial struggles, disease—were already tearing at people, drowning them in a roiling ocean of stress and sorrow. Then comes a hurricane. Not figurative. Literal.
“This just triggers what’s really going on inside of them. They’re just so forlorn and they just don’t know how to handle the troublesome life,” Grabowski said.
While many understandably struggle under the weight of their trials—especially when combined with a natural disaster that struck a historic blow—there are those who have withstood the onslaught and come out strong, motivated and determined to make a difference.
‘I Was a Mess When Jesus Came into My Life’
Jeanie Turner is a bubbly woman with bright purple hair that matches the purple canopies attached to her beautiful, but modest, home. Her joyful demeanor and beaming smile are gifts from God and a testament to His grace, belying the deep pain she has endured throughout her life and the flooded home that is being worked on feet away from where she stands.
“I was a mess when Jesus came into my life. I was an alcoholic. I had been married five times,” said Jeanie.
In the midst of her struggle with addiction and pain, she heard a story from the Bible that stopped her in her tracks and changed the direction of her life.
“I heard the story about the woman at the well who had been married five times, and then Jesus told her, ‘and the man that you’re with now is not your husband either.’ The night that I heard that story is when everything changed in my life. It was an ‘Aha!’ moment for me.”
And Jeanie noticed something very important about the woman at the well. She did not go quietly on her way after her encounter with Jesus. Rather, she ran into town to tell people about Him.
Jeanie knew that she, too, had to tell people who were stuck in sin about the freedom found in Christ.
It’s been said that the light shines brightest in the darkest areas. In a world of easy shortcuts, Jeanie chose the hardest path, and with God’s help she went straight into the enemy’s camp.
She began telling prostitutes on the street about the love of Christ. Then she began doing the same with dancers at the local strip clubs. She would bring gifts—little trinkets with sentimental value like tea cups or mother-of-pearl hearts—to let them know that they’re loved. That she loved them, and that Jesus loved them.
She bursts into a hearty laugh, remembering the Christmas when she bought all of the baby Jesus figurines from the nativity scenes at the dollar store for a buck a piece. It wasn’t until she was halfway home that she realized that everybody else would have incomplete sets because she bought all of the available Jesus figurines, but she hoped people would understand.
“Jesus is the gift, and that’s what I wanted them [the dancers at the club] to have for Christmas, is baby Jesus,” she said.
Over the years, her heart for others has grown into a multi-faceted outreach. “We do strip club ministry. We do jail ministry. We do general outreaches if we know there’s an outreach that needs to be done,” she said. She has opened a second-hand store that hosts classes on life skills and combating drug addiction. She’s opened four homes for women who are seeking to escape the life they’re living.
“That life is not easy to get out of, because the devil has them convinced that’s all they’re good for,” said Jeanie. “So when they want to come out, they gotta have someone telling them, ‘You’re good for something more than that.’ Christ did more than that on the cross for you. He made you more than a conqueror. All you have to do is ask Him and He’ll help you.”
Jeanie beams like a proud mother.
“We have one girl that I led to the Lord in the strip club dressing room one night, and she’s an attorney now. We have another one right now who used to be a heroin addict and a prostitute and she’s going to go on to be a pastor,” said Jeanie. “There’s a lot of different lives that they’ve gone into, including a life of Christ.”
Of course, none of this—not her struggles through addiction and multiple broken marriages, nor her redeeming ministry to those who need it most—altered the path of Hurricane Irma as it bore down on the streets of Fort Myers.
Jeanie rode out the storm at a friend’s house, but returned to find that hers had flooded and had to be gutted to protect against mold and mildew.
The harsh reality is that even the caregiver needs care sometimes, and that’s what Jeanie received when the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team (RRT) and partner ministry Samaritan’s Purse showed up to help her recover.
“Billy Graham [chaplains] came and gave us some hope. So I’m just thankful that God will show up and God will do something, because He always does. He’s never left me. He’s never forsaken me. He makes a way where there seems to be no way.
“It’s awesome, honestly,” Jeanie says about praying with the chaplains. “To have people come and say, ‘Let us pray for you,’ it just feels empowering.”
‘I Passed Out Behind the Wheel’
The chaplains made their way to the front door of the house and knocked. Somewhere inside a dog started barking. Suddenly the door swung open and David Brantley, a giant of a man, stood there. He immediately recognized the name Billy Graham on the blue shirts, and shouted in joy.
He dropped back into the house for a moment and then reemerged, proudly wearing his University of North Carolina (UNC) shirt. He excitedly told the chaplains how much he loves Billy Graham, and how he grew up just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, where the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is based.
David took the bottle of Diet Coke in his hand and jammed it into his mouth, using his teeth to twist the cap. It was the first indication that his other arm didn’t work properly.
In the moments that followed, David Brantley began to share his story, not of the flood, but of the “storm” that nearly claimed his life many years before.
It was a tale of alcohol and drug addiction, of depression and suicidal desperation. He had flunked out of UNC, had a falling out with his father, and had daily thoughts of taking his own life.
“I started praying for God to take total control of my life, and to help me see my dad again, and to help me get back into school,” said David.
He was working full-time at Domino’s Pizza, trying to earn the necessary money to get back to his dream of graduating from UNC. And that’s when the bad decisions caught up with him.
“One night I drank so much alcohol that I passed out behind the wheel and flipped out the sun roof of my Honda Prelude, and got knocked into a coma for 10 days,” said David, pointing to the deep indentation on his shaved head.
He somehow recalls an 8-year-old boy who happened to be riding by on a bicycle at 4 a.m. rolling him out of a puddle in the ditch, in which he likely would have drowned. “An angel,” he affirms.
“When I woke up from the coma, I heard the doctor tell my dad, ‘If he ever opens his eyes, if the right side of his brain is completely dead, he will never walk or talk again,’” David said, his voice cracking and tears filling his eyes.
God answered his prayers, though, definitely not in the way one might have expected or hoped. When he came to in the hospital room, his dad rushed to his side. “David, I’m here for you now. And I’m going to help you get back into school if that’s what you want to do,” he remembered his father saying.
“My left arm to this day is almost completely paralyzed, but I was able to get back up out of that bed,” said David. “They said I’d never graduate from an accredited university like North Carolina, but I ended up graduating with honors with a degree in speech communications.”
David lived and reconciled with this father, but that didn’t mean the journey had ended. In fact, David returned to drinking, until he heard a message that impacted him just like the woman at the well impacted Jeanie.
“The preacher man said, ‘If you ain’t changed, you ain’t saved.’ I got saved. I hit my knees like a ton of bricks. I went straight to the ground and asked Jesus into my heart. I repented of my sin,” said David.
He went on to seminary and hasn’t had a drink since 1999.
Fast forward to today, and things aren’t easy. Much like the twisted wreckage of Hurricane Irma littering his front yard, the storm of David’s tumultuous early days may have passed, but the damage is still there.
Sitting in his living room, with the sheet rock jaggedly ripped far enough up the wall to reach past the Irma floodline, David breaks into tears talking about the recovery and the physical toll it took on his already broken body.
“We had to pull the carpet up in the back room. Had to pull the carpet up in the bedroom. I’ve been disabled for a long time, but all the work put me in a wheelchair for a couple days. If it hadn’t been for the Christians that showed up, I might not have made it. For real,” said David, talking about the Samaritan’s Purse volunteers and the Billy Graham RRT chaplains, as well as local churches that checked in on him and helped him recover.
Before his visit with the chaplains concluded, David had one request: to rededicate his life to Christ. As the chaplains circle around for prayer, David drops to a knee. In fact, he, his wife, and their beaming, smiley granddaughter all rededicated their lives. Moments later, their teenage daughter—who has been in another room through the conversation—emerges and makes a decision for Christ as well.
“When I saw Leo [a RRT chaplain] come up here, I thought it was Billy Graham himself,” David said, laughing. “The Holy Spirit—like the Bible says—blows like the wind and comes and goes as it pleases. But He really comes when God’s people show up.”