Arkansas residents wondering about spate of disasters

BY SUSAN KIM | LITTLE ROCK, AR | June 3, 1999


After being raked by tornadoes in January, then stunned by a recent freak amphibious boat accident that

killed 12, Arkansans woke up Wednesday morning to an American Airlines plane crash in which nine people perished. Now they're asking

'why' -- and struggling for answers.

Laura Rhea - and many of her neighbors -- went to sleep Tuesday night praying for no tornadoes. Since the power was out much of the night,

many people didn't hear about the tragedy until mid-morning. "I was just hoping this would pass us by. Then I heard about the plane crash. I'm

certainly not going to question the mind of God, but I just sat there wondering why. There are a lot of people praying about that right now."

Rhea, who operates an ecumenical food pantry in downtown Little Rock, thought there was nothing she could do. "But I went to work, and the

Salvation Army called at 10 a.m. They needed food for the relief workers. We were ready. It felt good to have some part in helping people," she

said.

The Rev. JoEllen Willis, a Unitarian Universalist pastor in Little Rock, was attending an interfaith breakfast on Wednesday morning when she

heard about the plane crash. "I said, 'It sure sounds like pilot error,' and my friend said to me, 'I was thinking about how he must be feeling.'

That was before we found out the pilot had died. We have a tendency to blame someone, and that helps us feel better."

"We all do look for an answer. But there are unexplainable things that happen. I can't answer the question of 'why.' That's not very satisfying to

many people. I can only answer the question of how we can respond. This is a reminder to all of us that we're not in control of our lives. In this

town, flying back and forth to Dallas is as common for some people as getting in your car."

The Rev. Bill Rose-Heim, the associate regional minister for the Christian Church Disciples of Christ in Arkansas said that, sometimes, the

religious community is less prepared to respond because of an expectation that bad things won't happen to good people. "That stands in the

way of preparing because we deny it's going to occur. Then we seem to live in a state of denial that there's nothing we can do. Then when we try

to blame it on a specific cause or person, that's part of the denial."

In severe but isolated disasters such as plane crashes, hospital and police chaplains are usually the first in the religious community to respond.

Tom Helmick, director of pastor care at St. Vincent's Infirmary in Little Rock, spent several hours with families of victims and with survivors

immediately after the crash, and will continue ministering to them today.

"My role is to listen with care and provide a safe, assuring place. I try to be open and inviting and let them tell their story. Sometimes that just

means sitting next to someone and touching their hand," he said.

After chaplains initially respond, local pastors ideally should provide a continuum of care, he added. "If a survivor is from a local parish, I'd

hope the pastor would confer with me about that person's needs. That way we can move a person from critical care to long-term care," he said.

Local pastors are also ministering to the larger community, many of whom feel hopeless after the spate of disasters in their state this year. "The

problem is, most pastors run dead into their limitations when someone asks the question 'why?' after a disaster," said the Rev. Hezekiah Stewart,

who directs the Watershed Community Center in Little Rock. "Sometimes the best answer is to say 'I don't know' and simply trust in the Lord.

Sometimes I just hug people and hold their hands. Sometimes you have to actually let them counsel you."

Besides offering face-to-face comfort and counseling, at least one faith-based group has a special response plan for plane crash survivors. The

Church of the Brethren, in a partnership with the American Red Cross, is equipped to send on-call teams of trained childcare workers to crash

sites for families of survivors and victims as they wait for information on loved ones and go through legal procedures.

Today Church of the Brethren officials are assessing the need for childcare in the wake of the Arkansas crash. "This may not be an extended

operation because, as I understand it, all dead have been recovered, and many of the injured have been released, live in the local area, and have

support from their families, and from local religious and mental health services," said Lydia Walker, an administrator for that partnership.

Adventist Community Service (ACS) is also developing a plan to provide chaplains and counselors in the wake of plane crashes and similar

incidents. "We have been exploring a partnership with the Red Cross," said John Gavin, a disaster response specialist. "Many of our pastors

already have specific crisis training that would be very applicable. We expect to have something released in the next few months."


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