SEATTLE – Enio Aguero had never been to Oso, Wash., before late last month. But he recognized the faces.
“Faces of hopelessness, trying to find out why or how this could happen,” said the 53-year-old chaplain from Northern Virginia, a veteran of disaster relief in Moore, Okla., where a tornado in May obliterated entire subdivisions and killed 24 people.
“When a disaster like this happens, it touches the deepest part of our being. At one minute, there was everything; a minute later, there was nothing,” said Aguero, a chaplain coordinator for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief. “There’s no way we can make sense of this, except that God is in control.”
People of faith, ministers and chaplains have responded to the deadly March 22 mudslide as a calling. They’re on the ground in Oso, Darrington and Arlington, Wash., trying to help shocked survivors pick up and go on. The transition from overwhelming loss to healing will be slow and difficult, they say.
“I’ve been ordained 38 years, so I’ve seen a lot, but I’ve never been a part of something this dramatic and all-encompassing,” said the Rev. Tim Sauer, pastor at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Arlington and St. John Vianney in Darrington.
“There is a heightened sense of numbness, at least initially. It’s been two weeks now, so the realities are starting to kick in.”
In the first few days after the slide, local churches served as clearinghouses for food, water and other basic needs. Increasingly, though, grieving families and rescue workers are turning to them for spiritual and emotional care.
“Even someone who does not believe in God lifts up their eyes and asks why,” Aguero said.
The need to minister to people traumatized by natural disasters is attracting more attention from faith-based organizations, said the Rev. Frederick Streets, a social-work professor at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Conn., and former chaplain of Yale University.
Grief felt over the sudden loss of a loved one, coupled with massive property damage, can lead to health ailments, substance abuse and other problems if left untreated, Streets said.
“Grief is a natural reaction to loss, and it becomes more complicated when the loss is traumatic and unforeseen,” he said. “Even people who survived the mudslide have to deal with dislocation.”
Chad Blood, pastor at Lifeway Foursquare Church in Arlington, initially busied himself with phone calls to determine “Who needs clothes, who needs water?” But his role changed when a volunteer firefighter in Darrington asked if he could come to the local community center, “to sit with people, engage with them and love them.”
He and others emphasized that they’re careful to not proselytize or come across as if they’re trying to convert someone to their own religious faith.
“I’ll ask at the fire department, ‘Hey, you need some water? Anything I can get you?’ Just be present,” Blood said. “Down the road, six months from now, when things quiet down and all the media has left – and things hit your heart a little heavier – they’ll know where to turn.”
He uses the term “ministry of presence” to describe what he sees as his main role nowadays: to serve as a listening ear. He spent one day last week running errands with the father of a teenage boy killed by the mudslide.
“You’re not asking, ‘How are you feeling?’ How can someone even answer that question? At the same time, you can be with them, let them cry and express themselves,” he said. “As a minister, I believe just being with somebody allows them to heal.”
Sauer said he’s been going practically nonstop since the disaster, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, devoting himself to grieving families from a variety of religious backgrounds.
Catholic Community Services is covering the funeral costs for slide victims, no matter what religion they followed or did not follow.
“In every case, those conversations have moved from specifics about funerals, burials and expenses to their spiritual and faith life and their own struggles with that,” Sauer said.
“It’s clear this has shaken our community in countless ways. But in that process, it has brought to the surface for a lot of people questions about what they believe and what matters and what role God has, first of all, in this tragedy and, second, in their lives as they go forward from here,” he said. “I sense that people are now looking for spiritual support.”