by Kurtis Kristianson
In June and July I was asked to travel to Fort McMurray for three days at a time to connect with survivors of the wildfires and document their stories for Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada. Imagine you and 40 other people on your street have returned from an evacuation order a month earlier, and your homes are a pile of ash that could fit into the bed of a pickup truck. That is the situation I entered into with my camera this summer.
As excited as I was for such an amazing opportunity, I soon experienced the reality of the situation and the level of destruction the people of Fort Mac faced. Even with 20 years experience in disaster response, fire fighting and highway rescue, I was not prepared for what I saw. And that is a large part of why it can be difficult working in disaster response: every new disaster brings with it a new set of challenges, and you can bet that the next one will be different again. Being in the response zone in a new communications role, I had to be flexible, open to learning as I went, and most importantly, rely on God to lead me in my task.
Almost immediately I was placing the camera in front of people’s faces and asking them tough questions. It was nerve-wracking, and I was just waiting for people to burst into tears and walk away from the interviews.
With our writer hanging over my shoulder, surely we were intimidating these people? But it never happened. I consider myself a professional and know how to build rapport with my interviews, but the people we met seemed very open and cooperative. And not just during the interviews, but with anyone who was speaking to them. I still didn’t fully understand this openness until I spent some time with the Rapid Response Chaplains a few hours later.
Samaritan’s Purse was on these sites to meet the survivor’s needs in a real practical way. Some needed trained volunteers to sift through their ashes to find mementos to carry on into their new life. Some residents needed their refrigerators taken care of, (full of hazardous material…think food going bad over a month) and some just needed their lawn mowed. It sounds basic, but when your life is overwhelmed with tragedy, basic needs can be that final straw that breaks your spirit. And then there were the chaplains, whose role I did not fully understand until I really spent time with them on site.
It may seem strange, but living in North America we are not really taught to listen. We think that the way people will like us or give us attention is by talking. The Rapid Response Chaplains are trained to listen. Pair that up with someone who fears God and loves people and you have one of the most attractive people around. Who doesn’t want someone to listen to them? This is where the light went on for me, watching the chaplains and talking to them.
You see no matter how “together” the survivors were keeping it, or how resilient they seemed, they were all experiencing a deep level of grief. We volunteers couldn’t relate to the survivors we met or even hope to fix their problems, and I think Samaritan’s Purse gets that. What we could do was give our time in a practical way to try to meet some basic needs, and most importantly we could walk along side with them and just listen. And I know the chaplains get that. We all listened. The volunteers moving the fridges, the crews in white exposure protection suits sifting through the ash, the chaplains who walked the welcome centers and the streets reduced to nothing. Everyone in one way or another simply listened.
And do you know what happens when someone gets to express their feelings, a little grief, and gratitude that you are there on your own time and your own dime? Those survivors start to ask questions. They will ask you why you drove eight hours to dress in heavy exposure suits in the 30-degree heat to shovel through their homes, which are now ashes.
They will ask why you are straining to get their fridge out their door while you are on your only week of unpaid holidays this year.
And if you believe in the power of the Spirit and what God has done for you in your life, you will give them the answer that they just may be looking for.
Kurtis Kristianson is Digital Content Creator for spindriftphotography.com. Read Faith Today’s story about Christian groups responding to the Fort McMurray emergencies this summer.