by Tim Serban
I first encountered American Red Cross and Disaster Spiritual Care at the very first NACC training in 1999. I went forward blindly, hoping that I would learn everything I needed to learn before deploying to an air disaster. Deploying was not even a word in chaplaincy vocabulary. This was my introduction to the para-military nature of the Red Cross, with its million acronyms and references to forms, processes and DROs, or Disaster Relief Operations.
My colleagues and I were anxious and excited to learn and help create something new. The initiative had begun after a personal request from the families of those who died in several airplane crashes in the 1990s. The National Transportation Safety Board tapped Red Cross, which in turn tapped NACC, APC and NAJC to train and respond.
Through these past 15 years, the American Red Cross has really come to appreciate the difference between the role of the professional chaplain and the leader of a faith community. With its strong principles of neutrality and impartiality, Red Cross initially felt that supporting spiritual care might conflict with these principles. But after many deployments and experiences with professional chaplains across America, they clearly understand today that chaplains honor the voice of the voiceless and ensure that the spiritual needs of everyone affected by the disaster are honored.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I learned of the planes hitting the World Trade Center and Pentagon on my way to medical grand rounds in Everett, WA. Within a few days the call came: I was needed to deploy to the World Trade Center site. My son, Joseph, was just 2 at the time, and when the skyline of New York was shown on TV, he said, “That’s where Daddy is helping the people where the planes crashed.” Joseph’s words through each deployment will forever be my strength and my burden.
At the World Trade Center site, we supported over 600 chaplains across the city in 24-hour shifts. From the Family Assistance Center at Pier 93 to the temporary mortuary, the disaster mortuary at St. Vincent Hospital, three respite centers around the towers, and the Staten Island landfill where the debris from the site was sifted and sorted in multi-level conveyor belts as far as the eye could see. The friendships I developed with Ron Oliver (APC), Stephen Roberts (NAJC), Therese Becker, Glen Calkins, Greg Bodine, Sr. Laurentilla Back, and Fr. Joe O’Donnell (NACC) were key to my healing and commitment to carry on.
My next deployment came in 2005, immediately following Hurricane Katrina. Here the size and scope of a complex disaster was beyond anything I have ever seen. This deployment expanded our role and highlighted a unique expertise that chaplains provide, which is support to rescue workers and families in grief. Spiritual care leaders partnered with the disaster mortuary teams responsible for the recovery of every person who died in New Orleans. Here I learned the concept of using “spiritual duct tape” to keep the team of recovery workers focused. They had no backup teams, and as chaplains we had to ensure that they stayed on track until they were disengaged from the scene. We honored the dead through the autopsy process, advising the teams to add a symbolic washing station to honor those who required this for their faith. We met families at the fence line searching for someone who might recognize the photo of their loved ones. We comforted survivors in mega-shelters who clung to their 5-foot-square corner of carpet in a convention center as the only safe place they knew. And we escorted families as they boarded planes at midnight bound for unknown destinations. In turn, we sat with dying persons in makeshift airport mortuaries as companions and witnesses to their life.
In 2009, three simultaneous earthquakes hit 150 miles off the coast of the tiny South Pacific island of American Samoa, creating four massive tsunami waves that hit and wrapped around the entire tiny island 18 minutes later. Nearly 200 people died, and homes were simply erased off their foundations. Our 50-person delegation supported nearly 2,000 children from grade school through junior college. We honored the lives of those who were lost and supported families who lost children and parents.
The experience in American Samoa was the most moving of my life. The gift of presence was so palpable there because everyone on the island knew we were there and why. Their gratitude for our presence was unbelievable. It was among the harder deployments; we slept outdoors under a metal gymnasium roof, and the rains and wind would come unexpectedly. Each night the swarms of shad flies arrived at sunset, the waves of frogs came from the jungle to feast on the flies, and in three hours they were gone. I would call Joseph, now 10, from a mountaintop to say I was safe and could my wife call the families of the other 10 relief workers, because they couldn’t get a call out. And we watched as 21 fifth-grade students played “Amazing Grace” on ukuleles at the ocean’s edge, standing on the foundation of what remained of their classmate’s home. As they honored the lost lives, a whale and her baby came into the cove very close to where the children played, sprayed mist in the air and swam back to the sea.
Last May, during the NACC conference in Pittsburgh, I happened to pass a television to see the news that a bomber had detonated two bombs at the Boston Marathon. Within an hour, a call came to deploy me to support leadership at the Cambridge headquarters. This time Joseph, now 13, dove underwater in the hotel pool, hoping that he could stay under long enough not to hear the words, “Red Cross called.”
In Boston, our teams supported families and survivors who were seeking support through the grief and shock. With the bombers still on the loose, we experienced the city-wide lockdown beginning around our hotel, when news of an officer shot sent shock waves through the neighborhood. The work was complex, helping local relief workers and faith communities as they honored those who were lost and trying to recover themselves. Creative memorials were held for staff who had been working nonstop for the entire week.
My role as Disaster Spiritual Care volunteer lead has evolved significantly through the years. Many of us knew Earl Johnson as the face of Disaster Spiritual Care; he led the effort as a volunteer from 2001 to 2009, while I served as an NACC representative on the leadership team. Earl’s full-time paid position was eliminated after two years in 2011, but Red Cross wanted to affirm their commitment to the program, and I was asked to serve as DSC volunteer lead. We quickly formed an administrative team to ensure the DSC work could continue, and we now have 10 divisional leads, including myself.
I volunteer with Red Cross because of the honor and opportunity to support and build the most diverse and comprehensive team of over 650 spiritual care leaders one could ever imagine. I have always loved the verse: “Wear out the doorstep of a wise person.” (Ecclesiasticus 6:36). Through this work I have had the honor of working with so many people of wisdom, and I have secretly been the student learning from their gifts.
Together we have honored the lives of those who have been lost. When I began in 1999, I never expected where my path would lead, yet I know that the experience is a gift with which I have been honored to share in places where even I would normally fear to tread.
Joseph, now 14 and a wise and deeply prayerful young man, says, “Dad, I won’t give money to Red Cross, because I have already donated my dad too many times.” Disaster Spiritual Care is incredible and life-giving, but requires balance and a strong commitment to a team approach.
Tim Serban, BCC, is chief mission integration officer for the Oregon region of Providence Health & Services in Portland, OR.