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What I Learned as a First-Responder

May we reflect the light of Jesus in every situation and allow His radiance in us to make the difference. by Colonel Steve Morris

Have you ever been asked to do something you feel is well beyond your abilities? Never did I feel more underprepared then on that day in April of 2007 while listening to the horrific news about the shooting on the Virginia Tech campus which eventually took the lives of 32 and injured scores of others. As I was in my car listening to the account, the shrill of my phone ringing cut through the radio broadcast. Within seconds, I was seemingly thrust from my car seat into the news story, as I was assigned to be among the first responders to the Virginia Tech campus.

During the 4-hour drive to Blacksburg, Virginia, I was almost overcome with the reality that I had neither the training nor the skill sets to be of any help at such a time of raw emotion and hurt. I began praying, hoping I would be up to the task of what I was being called to do within a few hours.

Although that deployment was only a few days in duration, it was the most intense disaster response to which I have had the privilege to respond. In the decade since that deployment, there are life lessons I learned at Virginia Tech which I have used in the sphere of pastoral care to victims of violent crimes. Here are a few of those lessons:

UNDERSTAND YOUR ROLE: As a volunteer responding to an unnatural disaster, my role is to provide hope and not to be a hero.

Be real about what difference you can make. Much of that difference will have to do with your willingness to be present and not your usage of clever words. From the moment one hears of the violent passing of a loved one, disbelief and shock begin instantaneously. As I attempted to console family members, it seemed as though my words sounded empty and of little help, but God clearly indicated for me to support them with the ministry of presence and a listening ear. 

As I listened intently to their stories, I listened for their loved ones’ names and asked more questions to get to know their loved ones. They wanted to speak about them—to remember them as they were—and I was able to hear of their hopes, desires and ambitions from the family members’ perspectives. 

We are to respond just as Jesus would have responded, with a compassionate heart and open ears. When we can give the ministry of presence, it allows for God’s presence to rest on the victims, as well.

The Living Bible’s version of Proverbs 10:19 gives insight into this scene:

“Don’t talk so much. You keep putting your foot in your mouth. Be sensible and turn off the flow!” 

One of the most encouraging realities of a Christian’s role in counseling is the reality of the presence of God, which can influence even unbelievers in this setting. The love and compassion we show originates in Christ’s love for us and will be something which the victim will long appreciate. The Spirit can remain with them long after they are outside our presence, and that’s our intention. When the presence of God is realized, He offers hope in what seem to be hopeless situations.

DON’T TRY TO SOLVE PROBLEMS AND ANSWER QUESTIONS. Instead, apply the salve to begin the healing of a wounded heart: peace.

In the initial stages of grief, it is often too early for solutions, but peace can still be found. That peace which passes all understanding is what victims long for in the early stages. You and I represent the very presence of God in our actions, and our words should reflect only His words. 

On a family’s worst day, God’s peace is available. They may recognize our presence as evidence of God’s enduring presence, and in the days ahead, the peace which God provides will be more valuable than anything else you could offer.

“Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful” (John 14: 27, NASB).

THE MOST EFFECTIVE MINISTRY WE CAN OFFER is to serve as a mere reflection of Him.

In 2011, I was honored to be invited to pray at the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks for victims who had lost family members at the Pentagon. At the conclusion of my prayer, I opened my eyes, and a woman had risen from her seat in the banquet hall and was standing directly in front of me welling up in tears. We left the ballroom, and she informed me that she was the top civilian at the Pentagon on the day of the disaster, and she worked for weeks at the hotel in which we were standing. Ten years later, she remembered being “unnaturally calm” throughout the experience of alerting loved ones of their family members’ demise and arranging housing for visiting guests. She has always wondered why she remembered being at such peace throughout. All those memories flooded her mind when I stood to pray. She told me, “It was the presence of that uniform … you guys parked one of your trucks outside this hotel, and every morning, I went down for a cup of coffee and something sweet. It was your presence which let me make it through those horrible days.”

To whoever was privileged to work at the Marriott closest to the Pentagon immediately after 9/11— Shirley thanks you! And to whoever serves in the next disaster, and the next—thank you for serving with the ministry of presence and allowing yourselves to be vessels of His presence which will bring hope and peace for time to come.

One of our favorite folk songwriters is Sara Groves who speaks of being a reflection of Him this way:

You are the Sun, shining down on everyone

Light of the world giving light to everything I see

Beauty so brilliant I can hardly take it in.

And everywhere You are is warmth and light.

I am the moon with no light of my own, still You have made me to shine,

and as I glow in this cold dark night,

You know I can’t be the light unless I turn my

face to You.

Oh, may we reflect the light of Jesus in every situation and allow His radiance in us to make the difference.

This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of The War Cry.

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