RALEIGH, N.C. (ABP) -- Two weeks after 25 tornados wrecked havoc through eastern North Carolina, killing 24 people, survivors are just coming to grips with the reality before them.
Volunteer chaplains serving with North Carolina Baptist Men, recognized as one of the top three disaster-relief providers in the nation, are working shoulder to shoulder with other volunteers and mingling among the victims, offering the presence of Christ, a comforting arm and a healing ear.
Kent Withington, coordinating the two dozen chaplains who responded to this disaster, said they are starting to see the delayed reactions of despair among survivors. While their first coping mechanism has been to say, “At least I’m alive. I can rebuild,” now the enormity of their loss is rearing its head.
“It took us 30 years to get where we are, and we lost everything in 10 seconds,” one weary woman told them.
The first role of a chaplain is to be a good listener, said Withington, active as both a volunteer and paid chaplain at several institutions in Buncombe County. Because one of the best ways people get through a tragedy is to talk about it, Withington tells volunteers, “Hear their struggles. Don’t put words in their mouth.”
In Stoneybrook community where four children died in one trailer when a tree fell – including one that was in its mother’s arms – chaplains were present the first night residents could return for a few minutes to look for belongings. However, little opportunity presented itself for ministry until the weekend when residents could come back and “that’s when the stories started coming out about what it was like,” Withington said.
In addition to listening, chaplains are the presence of Christ in the midst of pain, he said. They should acknowledge that the victims have suffered loss and admit with them this was a traumatic experience.
Without intruding, the chaplains try to determine the victim’s “spiritual underpinning.” It doesn’t take long for someone who has a relationship with God to make that known in conversation. Part of the chaplains’ training is to tread lightly to avoid counting spiritual coup from emotional distress.
To a man whose trailer was untouched despite at least 20 large trees falling all around it, Withington said, “In some ways God smiled on you. “ The man distanced himself from volunteers to find a quiet place and “get connected with God,” and later Withington led him to Christ.
Chaplains are not immune to the stresses of those they serve. Sometimes at conferences chaplains who served in tough places, and have never talked about it with peers, break down in tears as they describe the devastation and heartache around them.
Withington will debrief the chaplains who served in this disaster, which N.C. Baptist Men Disaster-Relief Coordinator Gaylon Moss said was of a magnitude beyond what volunteers typically deal with in North Carolina. Of course, it pales in comparison to the death and destruction in Alabama, and Moss said North Carolina resources are available as soon as coordinators there assign them.
Moss said more than 7,500 volunteer days were recorded in the first two weeks after the North Carolina tornadoes, primarily in Raleigh, Fayetteville and Sanford. John Gore coordinated 1,500 volunteers who swarmed 200 jobs in Sanford where many homes were destroyed.
One woman who took shelter in her bathtub found herself hundreds of yards away from her house, still in her bathtub and covered with debris, when the storm passed. She directed rescuers to her and her dog with her cell phone.
Another lost a yearbook that was later returned from Wake County, 60 miles away. One man lay in the hallway with his family when the storm took off his roof. Looking up, he saw trees and parts of houses swirling in the air above him.
While each is grateful to be alive, the task of living has suddenly grown much harder.
Norman Jameson is reporting and coordinating special projects for ABP on an interim basis. He is former editor of the North Carolina Biblical Recorder.