By Joseph G. Bozzelli
“Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” (Mt.25:44)
On May 20, 2013, as I was watching TV from the comfort of my home in Kentucky, I saw that a tornado, later to be classified as an EF5 with over 200-mph winds, had devastated the town of Moore, OK, and surrounding areas. I felt helpless as this horrific experience unfolded before my eyes. All I could do was pray. I had no idea that three days later, I’d be walking among the ruins of Moore, as a chaplain with the American Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care team, trying to help survivors of that disaster find comfort and hope.
DSC responders are certified chaplains who have completed the American Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care orientation. It’s offered at various times nationally through the Red Cross, and yearly at our NACC national conference. The training is extremely beneficial in offering pastoral care at a disaster, but it’s also useful for crisis events in our daily ministries or in our communities.
At the airport, I met up with Stan Dunk, BCC with the APC. We became friends when Stan led our DSC team in response to the 2006 Lexington, KY, plane crash. Our chaplain team consisted of NACC and APC certified chaplains who had completed the Red Cross DSC training. They each chose to volunteer on a moment’s notice.
It’s not just a sacrifice of time; sometimes, it’s a sacrifice of comfort and well-being. The conditions can be challenging, both physically and emotionally. As you can imagine, precautions have to be taken among the rubble from a tornado. Just a week after I had arrived in Moore, another EF5 tornado hit the area. Creature comforts must be sacrificed. When I was in Joplin, MO, after that devastating tornado, I slept on a cot in a gymnasium with 200 other men … talk about snoring! Of course, in comparison to all the people you meet who have lost their homes and possessions, it was a minor inconvenience. And when I talk with chaplains who provided support following 9/11, it’s obvious that the pain from that tragedy still weighs heavy on their hearts. Though there may be risks involved, for most chaplains, the rewards are well worth it.
In Moore, Stan led our team of 10 chaplains. Every morning we met as a team and planned our day. Some of us were assigned to a Red Cross team with a mental health worker, a nurse, and a case manager. Our team would spend the day meeting with family members whose loved ones had died in the tornado. Together, we provided assistance for their immediate personal and spiritual needs. Other chaplains went to mass agency relief centers, a one-shop stop where survivors sought aid from such groups as FEMA, food banks, insurance agencies, and housing assistance. Often, our ministry involved helping people navigate the maze of bureaucracy that is just part of such events. Other chaplains went to the disaster sites, talking to survivors, assisting at Red Cross relief sites where survivors sought items like shovels, gloves, coolers, and food. We also met with other Red Cross volunteers as they too, were emotionally impacted by the disaster.
But at least for me, the most valuable part of what we offered is what we chaplains do: a listening presence. I met Julie as she was scavenging through the crumpled remains of her home. She showed me the only remaining room, the bathroom, where she had taken shelter from the tornado as her house collapsed around her. Bill, a rancher in his 70s, lost his home and his cattle, which was his livelihood. The most personally difficult experience was being with a woman whose four children and two grandchildren died in a flash flood that resulted from the tornado. When the tornado sirens sounded, the children, fearful that their apartment would be hit, sought shelter in a sewer drain that had protected them in previous tornados. If they had remained in the apartment, they would have survived; it was untouched by the tornado. As terribly sad as these stories are, my hope, as each person expressed their feelings, was that it helped in some small way, to bring a sense of healing and hope in the midst of their deep grief.
The camaraderie of the DSC team is truly special. There is no room for egos or personal agendas. The bond we established as a team provided support and healing for us, as well. Besides gathering in the morning and at the end of the day to process our experience, we had our lighter moments, too. When we finally convinced Stan to take a needed day off, he went to a wildlife reserve with free-roaming buffaloes. When Stan impersonated a buffalo’s grunt for us – well, needless to say, it was a source of great humor for the next several days.
As chaplains, we deal with emergencies and critical situations on a daily basis. But what makes this ministry unique for me is that I’ve been a part of intense and enormous relief efforts to help people, often whole communities, find some comfort and support. It is truly humbling and deeply spiritual.
You know how we often say in ministry that we get back so much more than we give? Well, that’s the same experience for me with the Red Cross. When I returned from Oklahoma, I had a renewed sense of my life, my values, and above all, my awareness of God’s grace and love. I had the privilege of being with people who literally lost everything, except their hope and their compassion for one another. I ministered with chaplains and other Red Cross volunteers who inspired me with their quiet dedication and commitment to serve the needs of others. Back at work, the principles of teamwork and organizational support that are so much a part of the Red Cross guided my interactions with our hospital staff. In addition, I believe that my sensitivity and compassion found a new depth and understanding.
Yes, there is suffering in this world, and tragedies like the Oklahoma tornados happen. But through God’s grace and compassion, normal, everyday people respond to such events with kindness and support for their sisters and brothers in need. I was physically and emotionally tired from my experience in Oklahoma. But as Grandpa Walton from TV fame used to say at the end of a hard day, “It was a good kind of tired.”
Joseph G. Bozzelli, BCC, is director of pastoral care services at St. Elizabeth Healthcare in Edgewood, KY.