Volunteer chaplains offer help after disasters through ‘ministry of presence’

Cailynn Klingbeil • Calgary Herald • November 21, 2015

A Calgary contingent of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team is in Paris to help mourners cope with their grief. This photo was taken at a vigil outside the Belle Equipe restaurant.

Days after terror attacks left 129 dead in Paris, Laurent Trabadello stood next to grieving people at the site of the killings.

Trabadello, a native of France who immigrated to Calgary 18 years ago, flew to Paris to volunteer as the team leader with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, overseeing a group of volunteer chaplains trained to provide emotional and spiritual support.

Members of the team started to arrive Monday and spent the day near growing spontaneous memorials outside La Belle Equipe restaurant, where 19 were killed, and later outside the Bataclan Theatre, where 89 people died.

The next day, they met with local church leaders to discuss how they could help support the grieving city. People want to help, Trabadello said, but don’t always have experience responding to such immense trauma; they’re unsure what to do or say.

That’s where the Rapid Response Team, made up of crisis-trained volunteers, steps in. In Paris, a seven person French-speaking team made up of four Canadians, two Americans, and one man from the United Kingdom will spend the next two weeks working with local residents, Christian organizations and clergy.

“We like to call it a ministry of presence,” said Trabadello, speaking from Paris Tuesday night. “We’re just standing with people, just being there, connecting with people.”

Since 2001, volunteer chaplains with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team have deployed to various communities around the world following natural or man-made disasters.

The team was developed after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, gathered a team of chaplains to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of first responders, said Merle Doherty, manager of the program in Canada.

“We recognized a bigger need for this across North America, and it grew from that,” said Doherty, who is based in Calgary and oversees training and deployments.

The Rapid Response Team now has 170 volunteer chaplains across Canada, including about 60 people in Alberta. Volunteers range in age, gender and backgrounds, Doherty said.

“I have everyone from psychologists to doctors to forklift drivers, and everything in between. It’s about coming with the heart, the love for Christ, the desire to help people,” Doherty said.

Chaplains undergo various training, from courses in critical incident stress management to suicide prevention. Teams have responded to natural disasters and other tragedies in Alberta, most recently the deaths of three sisters following a farm accident in central Alberta in October, and the murders of Blairmore residents Terry Blanchette and his two-year-old daughter Hailey Dunbar-Blanchette in September.

Prior to the Paris deployment, Trabadello helped following the killings of five students in Brentwood in April, 2014, and the Alberta flood in June, 2013.

Before a team of chaplains is sent to a community struck by tragedy, contact is made with local churches or organizations to see if help is needed.

“That’s the key. We go where we’re invited, we don’t impose,” Doherty said.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association covers the cost of accommodation and food for volunteer chaplains, and travel costs for international destinations.

Once they’ve arrived, chaplains focus on the spiritual and emotional needs of community members.

“That can translate into a lot of things,” Doherty said. “Because [chaplains] all grief-trained and trauma-trained, they know how to talk to people. They know how to listen to people.”

Sometimes, chaplains will simply stand next to a grieving person, while other times that person might be in need of water or a snack, Doherty said.

Jeff Adams, communications director with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada, said making connections with people can take time. Volunteers take a low key, gentle and patient approach.

“Initially people are a little suspicious of us, skeptical even,” he said.

“As time goes on, they realize this person is here because they care about me, and care about what I’ve experienced.”

In Paris, Trabadello described the atmosphere as somber, as people gather around the sites of mass murder to grieve the dead.

“We felt a great sense of trauma. Young adults were targeted, and it’s hitting the heart of Paris. It’s affecting people very deeply,” Trabadello said.

Still, many people wanted to talk, Trabadello said, and a few wanted to pray.

“We will pray with people if they want. It’s a very secular country, so people are not used to having people pray for them, but we found people were very open. Our role is just to be there, to mourn with them, grieve with them, and support them,” he said.

Trabadello, who works as ministry development strategist for Samaritan’s Purse, had just returned from a work trip to Cambodia when he got a call Saturday morning, asking if he would lead the team in Paris.

“It’s always hard to see people hurt and it’s been very traumatic,” he said. “But it’s also a great privilege to be here, to help people cope, to offer hope and comfort.”

Read more: http://calgaryherald.com/opinion/columnists/fortney-calgarians-reel-reach-out-after-paris-attacks

Click here to learn more about the Rapid Response Team chaplains