Feature

Visible Reminder of the Holy

Military chaplains demonstrate love in San Antonio

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“Sir, with thousands of evacuees arriving, I think we should provide two chaplains around the clock to offer support at the shelter,” Rev. Bob Wido told his boss.

Wido, an Alliance chaplain, and two other men are responsible for pastoral leadership of 22 chaplains at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Three chapel teams minister to more than 5,000 people in weekly worship services at the base.

Wido knew that designating two chaplains for round-the-clock service would tax the staff, but he and his boss concluded that it was a worthwhile sacrifice. The base had been buzzing with activity since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.

San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger coordinated with local Air Force officials to use Kelly USA, a former Air Force base that shares an airstrip with Lackland, to house evacuees in unused office space and a hangar.

That base has air conditioning, bathrooms and storage space. Displaced families from Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi were also sent to Lackland. With the use of these bases, the city could accommodate 25,000 hurricane survivors.

The citizens of San Antonio scrambled to establish services and welcome the new arrivals. Military and civilian volunteers set up cots, coordinated food and medical care and prepared the base for living. Local animal shelters volunteered temporary pet care.

Needy People

While the first plane with evacuees was expected from New Orleans the afternoon of September 3, buses arrived at 9:30 a.m. Still the San Antonio volunteers didn’t skip a beat and welcomed the evacuees with open arms.

People of all ages arrived carrying purses, guitars and the few possessions they held dear and could fit into a plastic bag. One family walked in wearing plastic bags as clothing. Everyone walked through metal detectors and then to a registration desk. Doctors and social workers met with individuals to assess needs.

Volunteers directed the evacuees to their new home, a large room with few windows, lined with rows of army-issued cots. Maps in the hallway indicated the locations of restrooms, showers, dining facility, medical care and a chapel. That first day the shelter smelled like a ripe locker room, and the evacuees appreciated the showers more than anything else.

A three-year-old girl whose mother was nowhere to be seen weaved through the cots, laughing and squealing. She almost ran into an elderly lady with a cane. Wido got to his knees, looked into the girl’s bright brown eyes and kindly asked her to slow down. A few seconds later she started up again. He pointed her to the play area—just a big, empty space—where other children were releasing energy.

Troubled Tales

Days later as evacuees settled in, impromptu jazz-band members played haunting melodies on the base porch. A few people sat in the heat, smoking and telling stories. Inside, the shelter was filled with distress; almost every person was looking for someone—a father, a brother, a wife, a child. Within a few hours posters covered a wall, each with scribbled requests for information about missing people.

After phone lines were installed in part of the shelter so people could make free calls to loved ones, that room was full of activity. Adults relentlessly searched the Web for missing people.

Hundreds of evacuees roamed the halls. Some just felt restless; others needed help. A few people slept, oblivious to the light and noise. Elderly people carefully made their way through the masses. Teens wandered and chatted as if they were at the mall.

The Air Force Chief of Chaplains’ motto was a reminder to the Lackland chaplains that they were a “visible reminder of the Holy.” They and numerous civilian pastors walked through the nerve centers of the base, seeking to provide comfort and assistance.

One man said he had scrambled to the attic of his home as the floodwaters rose, and then poked a hole through the roof so rescuers could spot him. Another person talked about the oppressive heat in the Superdome and how crime sent a wave of fear through the evacuees.

The chaplains also dialogued with doctors and nurses who were eager to share stories that had broken their hearts. A Red Cross worker told about an 11-year-old girl holding a baby. “Whose baby is this?” the worker asked her. The girl sadly shook her head; she didn’t know. She had seen the child floating in the floodwater and had taken care of it since. “What’s going to happen to this baby, Chaplain?” the worker asked Wido. “How do we find its mother—if she’s even alive?”

A group of nurses from New Orleans gathered around one chaplain, all talking at once about their experiences. Their hospital’s first floor had flooded, and the electricity had gone off. Engineers rigged temporary lighting, and doctors washed with what little clean water they had. Women were in labor; C-sections were performed. One nurse’s face reflected anguish as she recalled helping new mothers who’d just had surgery climb stairs to the helicopter on the roof.

These worried workers needed to be reminded of the big picture as they poured out their lives to help. They sought reassurance that they were making a difference.

Hope Restored

The chaplains did find hope in the shelter. One man told a chaplain, “It’s like heaven here to me. I have food, air conditioning and a good place to sleep. This is better than I had it before. Here, I have a chance to start over.”

One chaplain observed that most of the evacuees claimed to be Christians but said they had “slacked off” about going to church. Their loss forced them to think about what matters most, and God had become a renewed source of strength. Many people carried Bibles—their only possession—in plastic bags.

About 13,500 evacuees registered in the four shelters near San Antonio in the days following the hurricane. A week later only 5,000 remained. Many families were reunited. Some evacuees moved into San Antonio apartments, started jobs and prepared their children for school. Life began afresh for many.

While Lackland Air Force Base provided chaplains, doctors, nurses and security forces, San Antonio’s civilian leadership directed the enterprise. Volunteers came from across United States. The Texas National Guard served here as well, and the Mexican Army came in a convoy with doctors, nurses and a cooking unit. At times things were a little chaotic, but overall the relief effort went smoothly, and the Air Force was pleased to help provide structure.

The Air Force chaplaincy represented the Most High God and the U.S. military by supporting the work of spiritual care among these displaced people. Some evacuees expressed surprise that military men and women showed them love and compassion. “Chaplain, I expected any military person in front of me to be waving a gun, not helping me,” one exclaimed. “Thank you.”
God’s people care, and God cares. Military chaplains are a visible reminder of the Holy.

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