By Marjorie Ackerman
Certified chaplains have many varied opportunities available to serve people in a special way. My time as an American Red Cross spiritual care provider was one of the most important and rewarding chapters in my chaplaincy story.
During my first career as a financial planner, I felt the call to chaplaincy, got my master’s degree, and was certified by NACC. I had begun to plan a strategy for moving away from advising and into “being there” when tragedy struck: My husband of 45 years died. Two days after the funeral, I began my life as a certified Catholic chaplain. After some time in hospital and jail ministry, I called FEMA to ask if they needed chaplains at disasters. A good friend who worked there told me that the American Red Cross was developing a program to help the families of those affected by transportation disasters. Since the Red Cross’ national headquarters was in Virginia, not far from where I lived, I worked there three or four days a week.
The group designing the spiritual care component of the disaster program were seasoned veterans of the American Red Cross response team. They were mental health people who had great respect for the different job we would be doing. With the help of the InterFaith Conference of Washington, we put together a “go box,” filled with religious books for prayer and items used at funerals and memorials for our diverse participants. It was extremely gratifying in times of trauma to observe how people who are hurting relate to the familiar. We also discovered that the only symbols acceptable to all religious groups are an angel or a dove, and that for the service following a tragedy, the instrument that does not seem to offend anyone is the harp.
Circumstances often prevented me from leaving the D.C. area for an extended period, but I was able to help at Red Cross headquarters during deployments. The tragedy of 9/11 was different. I was in Texas visiting my daughter and her family, and their son was in the second tower in New York. But he got out safely, and I am happy to say that he and his wife had their first baby, a son, last November.
A few days after that horror, I arrived back in Washington and went immediately to Shanksville, PA, the site of the crash of United Flight 93. By the time I arrived, the American Red Cross leadership was in control of the situation and the basics were in place. There are always problems, such as well-meaning people who self-deploy and those who do not follow instructions, but it is interesting to watch the clear, firm way the problems are handled.
The morning meetings allowed us to exchange thoughts and suggestions, and many potential problems were resolved there. Our role was to meet the families as they arrived and to reassure them in any way we could. We assembled local clergy from various faith traditions and explained the needs and the caveats. Almost immediately, we began to plan the memorial service. Laura Bush would be there with other dignitaries, and everything had to be sensitive to the needs of the families. The service was powerful, and the words spoken touched everyone’s heart without pathos. A second memorial was held several days later for those who could not attend the first gathering. The people of Shanksville were thoughtful and caring in every way. The parade of buses carrying the families to the site were honored by the Pennsylvania Highway Patrol in uniform, saluting each bus as it passed. The slow raising and lowering of the hands and the bagpipe music in the background brought tears to everyone’s eyes. We arrived at the site to flags flying, a riderless horse, and a single bugle playing softly.
The days I spent with the families of the victims, as well as the American Red Cross family, will always be with me. I feel honored to have been there.
My next response to a major disaster was in 2005, when I was called to help in Washington after many people were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The American Red Cross converted the D.C. Armory into an interim home for hundreds of people, and I was asked to manage the spiritual care component of the operation. We immediately encountered an unforeseen problem. The mayor’s office sent their director of religious services to meet and greet visiting clergy and dignitaries, but when I arrived, several groups were wandering about, even in the private family area.
The Red Cross has strict rules during a shelter operation. Not crossing the boundary into the private sleeping area of the displaced individuals and families is one; being properly badged for entry into the shelter is another. Since neither rule was being observed, I was asked to do something about it. The problem was not intentional and called for a diplomatic solution. I met with the official from the mayor’s office, and we agreed she would be responsible for her group. She would choose people to monitor a separate entrance, and a special badge would be issued. Records of visitors and their affiliation were to be kept, and the visitors would sign a memo of understanding, with the Red Cross rules spelled out. The agreement also stated that anything offered to one faith group would be available to the others, and under no circumstances would anyone go into the private family area. The needs of the people living in the shelter were respected, and the mayor’s office was happy.
I will never be able to fully show my appreciation for the privilege of representing my Catholic faith tradition as well as the American Red Cross in situations that called upon everyone to have understanding, tolerance and compassion. Taking care of ourselves as well as each other and the population we serve is ingrained in our training. It makes a difference to work in such an environment with very special people.
Marjorie Ackerman, BCC, is a retired chaplain.