Clergy play vital role during response

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | April 27, 1999

BALTIMORE (April 27, 1999) -- When therapist Nancy Rich stepped off the

plane in Baltimore late last Tuesday for a disaster management conference,

she got an urgent message: "call home."

It was then that she learned about the high school shooting in Littleton,

CO, where she practices at the Jefferson Center for Mental Health. "It was

very difficult to stay here, and not hop the first plane back," she said.

But she stayed -- while keeping in constant contact with her hometown

colleagues back home -- to learn and to teach others about responding to

critical incidents. The conference, sponsored by the International Critical

Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF), attracted more than 1,000 emergency

services professionals from around the world.

Rich said churches and clergy can have a vital role in responding to

critical incidents. "The night of the shooting, the mental health center

stayed open until midnight, and opened again at 6 a.m. And nearby churches

also opened their doors, so that our counselors could be stationed there,"

she said.

Churches also offered candlelight vigils for community members who needed a

place to come together and grieve.

"I saw one of the kids being interviewed on television. The reporter said,

'You've lost a few friends today,' and the kid said, 'I've gained a few,

too.' Well, I think that the mental health center has gained a few friends

as well. We will keep trying to work closely with the churches and the

community," she said.

Clergy will need to be involved in a long-term response, especially during

the summer when school is out and young people don't have a readymade

support network. If there are trials for alleged accomplices, Rich said,

that will make the trauma last even longer.

"We need for any perpetrators to be fairly dealt with by the justice

system, but that doesn't do much for the healing process. I was really

hoping it was just the two gunman," she said.

Dolores Mitchell, a victims' assistance coordinator with the Colorado State

Patrol Academy, is also based in Littleton. Her job is to help victims'

families plan funerals, serve as a buffer between reporters and families,

help complete insurance paperwork, and refer families to other resources

that can help. She said that, while pastors can provide good emotional

support, it helps if they have some training or experience in dealing with

sudden deaths.

"Most pastors know a lot of the grieving process. But many don't have

experience with sudden or violent death. The grieving process and people's

reactions are different in that case," she said.

Barb Ertl, a school crisis consultant from Erie, PA, said that pastors and

church leaders should be part of their local crisis team or community

response team before an incident happens.

After an eighth-grade student shot and killed his teacher in Edinburgh, PA,

Ertl said pastors were included in crisis response from the beginning.

"They were part of the community team, and we appreciate the fact that they

were very sensitive and cognizant of the fact that not everyone is a

churchgoer but that nonetheless may need help," she said.

Another advantage that clergy have is that they can minister to families

during the day while children are in school or on Sundays when many other

agencies or resource centers are closed.

The most common mistake pastors make is not being clear or comfortable in

their response to a tragic incident because they haven't been trained in

how to respond, Ertl said. "There is no question that pastors should have a

baseline of training in this area. Because, let me tell you, the

expectation for them to help will be there, whether they've had training or


Pastors and church leaders seeking training can contact their

denominational disaster management arm, the emergency response committee of

Church World Service, or the ICISF, which offers training programs for

pastors, chaplains, and other faith-based leaders.

Pat Tritt, a nurse who is director of Emergency Medical Services and Trauma

in Englewood, CO, said that a tragic incident has the potential to bring a

community closer together, but that it also may create wedges between

people as well when those responding aren't clear on their roles. "People

sometimes start fighting over how best to help the victims' families. They

can become territorial," she said.

Certain events cause a resurgence of traumatic memories -- anniversaries of

a tragedy, holidays, the first day of school -- and pastors can also take a

proactive approach by planning a response ahead of time.

Pastors may also be able to help prevent youth violence by knowing how to

spot warning signs in young people. Warning signs happen in a continuum,

according to Dr. Raymond Flannery Jr., associate clinical professor of

psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of six books on stress,

violence, and victimization.

Early warning signs for which pastors should watch include disruptions

within families, peer groups, schools, and neighborhoods, as well as

changes in a young person's personal growth and interpersonal skills -

especially if a young person appears to develop a disregard for others.

Teen violence prevention experts also suggest that pastors work on a

community level to create an environment in which teen violence may be less

likely. For instance, churches and pastors can visibly participate in

community safety programs. They can sponsor youth groups, and can help

ensure that young people know about medical and psychological resources

available to them.

Finally, churches can provide spiritual support for young people who are

searching for a meaningful purpose for life.

Posted April 27, 1999

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