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Katrina: God's test

Chaplains hear of grief, gratitude, frustration, faith, abandonment, hope

The many displaced people she's charged with helping likely wouldn't know it, but Sheila Ivers is tired. Fatigue is in her voice during a call from Camp Williams, where her ministry has continued at a grueling pace since the hundreds of Hurricane Katrina evacuees began arriving a week ago.

Of all the physical and logistical support being provided — water, food, clothing, family re-unification services, education, housing and job placement — it may be the spiritual care that, at once, takes the heaviest toll and yet best boosts the spirits of caregivers. As an interfaith chaplain, Ivers hears about grief and gratitude, frustration and faith, abandonment and hope.

All those emotions are percolating inside the dispossessed, who wonder why God would let this happen to them.

"We generally talk that through, and sometimes you have to identify for them who God is for them. God is different for almost every single person. We help them realize it's OK to be angry at God; it's appropriate. We're giving them permission to do that, and it helps. Oh yes, it helps."

Venting emotions pent up since the crisis allows acceptance of what has happened to open a little. "At least that's what everybody says, that it just helps to talk," Ivers said. "That's what our chaplains are trained to do — to listen. If we do nothing else, we listen. A chaplain who talks a lot is a bad chaplain."

As co-chair of spiritual care for the local Red Cross, Ivers is a veteran of previous disasters. The work this time around "is a little more chaotic than other disasters I've helped with before. It's certainly bigger than last year's hurricanes (in Florida) from a spiritual standpoint, because there's such a tremendous amount of total loss. I also think the violence they experienced and the lack of care or any organization there for a while" has been move devastating, she said.

"They just felt abandoned, and that abandonment has to be very difficult for them."

Grief is a huge issue as well, and trust has to be built slowly, since many felt threatened and alone. "There's a huge sense of loss . . . of anything they have to tie themselves to. They're very hungry to put down new roots or to go back to their old roots. They need comfort."

So prayer — even when they're angry at God — has been a constant request from nearly everyone Ivers has encountered. "I pray with many of them, and every one of them asks for it. So far, they're just very open to prayer."

The spiritual care team, chaired by Kay Miller, has distributed about 300 Bibles this week, Ivers said. "Most of them are either Baptist or Catholic, and that's mostly the kinds of Bibles they're looking for, but many don't care."

Another "higher power" connection is group worship, which is being organized with the help of Rev. France Davis of Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City. He's another spiritual leader who jumped into the fray from the very beginning, greeting refugees as they de-planed last weekend.

"I rode on the buses with them as they went from Guard base to Camp Williams and have been there pretty much every day, just trying to show a friendly and warm face of faith that they can turn to." He led the first worship service on the base last Sunday, and has been spearheading local ministerial response ever since.

Being black likely gives him something of an advantage in establishing trust with the evacuees.

A fixture in the local faith community for more than 30 years, Pastor Davis was busy this week organizing a schedule for nightly worship services, calling on a variety of churches and ministers to be involved. "They'll also be available for counseling before and after services and by phone. We would invite them to our local churches if they want, and we'll help with transportation."

Ministry hasn't been limited to on-site chaplains or Protestant clergy. A deacon from a local Catholic church has come, along with clergy from the Churches of God in Christ, Baptist and independent pastors. "I've had calls from the Presbyterians and the Seventh-day Adventists — everyone is wanting to be part and will be scheduled."

Local Muslims will hold a worship service at Camp Williams on Fridays. The outreach has been a true interfaith effort, he said.

"We're working with the state and had a meeting with the governor here at our place last night. Members of his team were here. All of what we're doing is in conjunction with the state."

While that may raise eyebrows for some, Pastor Davis dismisses the notion outright.

"This is a time when separation of church and state don't really matter. People's needs are what matters."