Caring for caregivers in VA

Disaster response team provides support to clergy.


A man lights candles at a memorial on the Virginia Tech campus.
Credit: Heather Moyer

Clergy who are "on the front line" in providing comfort and help to those grieving the loss of life in the Virginia Tech shooting rampage are themselves getting some much needed assistance.

Three members of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance National Response Team are helping clergy in and around Blacksburg to care for themselves and apprising them of the resources available to them in the wake of Monday's massacre which left 33 people, including the gunman, dead.

Such support, team members say, is crucial.

"It's important to care for them so they can survive and last," said the Rev. Jim Kirk, a member of the response team. "We're doing it now to help them with the immediate stress and also to help them pace themselves. They're on the front line."

As the community continues to mourn and turns to local clergy for support, team members are meeting with local Presbyterian pastors and campus ministers to address their needs.

Local clergy said they welcomed the help.

"I really appreciate them," said the Rev. Alexander Evans, senior pastor of Blacksburg Presbyterian Church. "They've come to represent the larger church here, and they've been very intentional in saying they're here to care for the caregivers."

Robert Barnes said he and other team members listen to the clergy's stories and offer suggestions, and frequently just being there is helpful.

"I'd say 80 percent of it is showing up, 10 percent is shutting up and 10 percent of it is speaking up if it's necessary," he said. "By and large, we are a ministry of presence."

That's not to say that team members don't do a lot.

Just helping to answer church phones or taking over preaching to someone's church on a Sunday can be helpful, Barnes said.

"Anything we can do to take a little stress off of them," he said.

Kirk said assessing the clergy and church needs is important when the team arrives, as is being sure to ask very open questions that were not leading.

"The temptation might be to say, 'This is what I would do,' but that does not matter," he said.

Barnes agreed, noting that questions such as "What's been the hardest part?" and "What do you not understand?" are helpful in assessing the clergy and getting them to talk. Many have told the team that the most difficult part is not knowing what to do.

Helping them through that confusion and stress is crucial both for the health of the pastors as well as for the health of their respective congregations and those they counsel, Kirk said.

He said members of the clergy are notorious for not taking care of themselves. He knows that first-hand, being the associate pastor of Moorings Presbyterian Church in Naples, Fla.

"We tend to isolate ourselves," Kirk said. "It's important to deal with a group who are there for others and have a difficulty taking care of themselves. They need a safe place to debrief. We want them equipped to remain well after a disaster."

Barnes said that after the Oklahoma City bombing, the American Red Cross reported that approximately 75 percent of clergy who responded later left the ministry.

"We had nothing in place to help them then," said Barnes, who served as a police chaplain in Santa Fe, N.M., for almost two decades. "There really is a greater need for support of clergy."

Barnes said Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) put a program together in the late 1990s. On April 20, 1999, the Columbine High School shootings happened.

"And now care for the caregiver is a major part of the PDA response," Barnes said. "We also do it for natural disasters."

Response team members said they will stay in the Blacksburg area to meet with clergy for the next few days in order to provide resources for more congregations and communities. They have also been meeting with members of the local police as well as with families of the victims.

The Presbyterians are one of several teams sent by faith-based disaster response organizations in the wake of the shootings. In addition to programs for the caregivers, following past incidents of mass public violence faith-based response organizations have also provided special programs for survivors.

Lutheran Disaster Response, the United Church of Christ's Wider Church Ministries and the Week of Compassion are amongst other organizations that have either sent support directly to Blacksburg or to partner organizations.

The need for spiritual care will last for some time in the Virginia Tech community as well as everywhere else that the tragedy touched, team members said.

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