Lessons from the front lines
By Deacon Paul Richards
The atmospheric river that came was truly an inundation. Torrential rain for days that caused mudslides, rivers to swell and burst their banks, roads and bridges to dissolve into nothing, and waters suddenly rising to dangerous levels and consuming homes, farms, and land. As the news steadily poured in of this terrible disaster in my province, the nearby community of Abbotsford was the hardest hit. Overflowing tributaries from the mountains to the Fraser River fully impacted on protective dykes, and suddenly a 100 metre breach in the dyke had millions of litres of water flowing into the southern prairie portion of the community along the US border.
Authorities ordered the immediate evacuation of 1100 homes. Five-thousand vehicles were abandoned as people fled for safety. The high water consumed the Number 1 Highway and internal highways leading eastwards, stranding hundreds of non-residents. Everywhere farms and livelihoods were destroyed, with whole herds of animals drowned in the rushing waters. Migrant farm workers from Mexico, employed by farmers in the region, fled to safety. With little or no time to evacuate, most people had nothing but the clothes on their backs. As waters continued to rise, people fled to emergency reception and lodging at a community exhibition centre near the airport, in shock, bewildered, and frightened.
Called—to be in the world
I have been through many crises in my adult life, both professionally and in ministry as a deacon in the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster. I have been ordained in diaconal ministry for almost seven years, and with my focus outside the church in the community, I have provided pastoral care to the sick and dying and engaged in street outreach ministry in the midst of the opioid crisis. In my professional life, I had 30 years of law enforcement experience, including overseas postings to Kosovo and Afghanistan. So in the evening after the evacuation centre was established, it wasn’t a surprise to discern God’s calling to attend to the evacuation centre and provide what pastoral care and support I could to the victims. I was reminded of the well-known verse from Isaiah 6:8:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here I am; send me.’”Isaiah 6:8
Deacons are the physical presence of the church out in the world and have been so since first mentioned in Acts 6:1–6.It was clear to me, with this disaster in my back yard, that among the victims is where clergy needed to be. Communicating and working in tandem with my clergy colleague in the community, we took turns attending to the emergency evacuation centre just talking to people, listening, praying when they wanted, and simply showing our support. An important part of our work was connecting and providing support to the small army of volunteers from different organizations, including faith organizations such as Salvation Army and Samaritan’s Purse, as well as personnel from Emergency Social Service (ESS).
To assist with immediate need, our Bishop and the Diocese pledged immediately $1000 relief to support the displaced victims of flooding and other vulnerable persons, and working with ESS we provided the funds for purchase by staff of urgently needed clothing and personal items. As donations began to flow, the Anglican Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) contacted the Diocese with an immediate pledge of $10,000 to help the victims of the flood. Further coordinating with ESS, we facilitated another $1000 to use for urgent clothing and personal needs, and the remaining $9000 to the Salvation Army Emergency Food Services, providing for free all meals to displaced persons and volunteers working at the evacuation centre. At the time of writing, further donations from Anglican Churches are incoming to provide assistance.
What have I learned from this ministry?
This experience reaffirmed in my mind the need for the church to go beyond the walls into the community, particularly in times of crisis. I witnessed people in the community band together with first responders and the military to sandbag, rescue livestock, take care of each other. We believe in loving our neighbor, but how do we actively live this aspect of our lives in faith?
As clergy, I feel that if we are not present in these situations then where should we be? On the front lines, so much of this ministry is simply listening to others. However, it also means answering tough questions about God in His presence in our lives when crisis occurs, so I feel a better commitment to crisis counselling for clergy is one of the key takeaways, particularly when these events occur without warning in our communities.
As many of us prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior, what of those who livelihoods have been destroyed and are left with nothing? It means clergy have to be grounded in their ability to work with people who find themselves in a crisis of faith and their lives destroyed. Clergy and church planning for local crises, including establishing protocols and networks of stakeholder organizations and leaders is also critical for timely support in faith, was another lesson I learned in this emergency.
Perhaps most of all, I learned not only is God present in our lives, even in the terrible moments where we cannot make sense of His world, but His love is demonstrable in the love and care His people show for each other, without hesitation or reservation. The waters will recede and the slow process of restoring life to normal and cleaning up will begin, but for lives forever changed by this disaster there is the constant of God’s grace and His love.
Reverend Paul Richards is a part-time, second year student in the MTS program at Wycliffe College. He is an ordained deacon in the Anglican Church of Canada based in Surrey, BC, and works full-time in the provincial Ministry of Public Safety.