Ten years ago, I was on a Rapid Response team of police chaplains, counselors and helpers that was dispatched to New Orleans. I was living in New York at the time and working for Dr. Billy Graham. Because of my connection with this Rapid Response team, we were allowed in with the first responders. Before this, I had been through trauma counseling and taken counseling courses in seminary. I also directed a homeless shelter, working with drug users and the mentally ill.
But nothing could prepare me for New Orleans.
It was horrific. Thousands of people had died and ten thousands had been displaced. Bodies floating in the water. Confusion, Loss and Grief and Anger. One lady shouted "Where were you?" at me because my badge said "first responder." She thought I should have arrived earlier. Hundreds of people were traumatized and showed symptoms of PTSD. The first responders were also traumatized.
Thousands of people had seen their houses destroyed, and were now separated from family and friends. Most of them didn't know where their families were, and wondered if they were still alive. It was before the age of smartphones and texting, and many of the victims didn't have cell phones. Some had seen friends and family members die. Many people now living in these warehouse "shelters." Thousands of people jammed together on concrete floors, laying on cots.
Now, all they had were these cots.
I went to New Orleans thinking about evangelism. But I realized quickly, the best thing I could do was help people and listen. Get water bottles. Find shoes. Be available. Listen.
By listening to their stories - stories of escaping through roofs, swimming to boats, watching friends die - listening to stories is part of the grieving process. People tell their stories and want you to listen and hear them. They tell the stories over and over, and want you "to mourn with those who mourn." So I sat there. Decision evangelism felt wrong. I had no idea what to say, what words to bring. So I listened. As I wrote in Fatherless Generation,
The longer I sat with these people, the more I realized I had nothing to give. No eloquent words or religious formulas. The only thing I could offer was silence. When I offered the gift of silence, people began opening up and sharing their stories. Sometimes laughing. Sometimes crying. Sometimes I heard the same story over and over again. There was something healing found in the silence. Hope emerged and rose from the despair. Hope wasn't found in anything I was saying, it was found in the silence. Offering silence to someone means that you care enough about them to listen. It means they are valuable and their story is valid.
Offering silent presence to someone says, "You are not alone. I am with you. You matter.
(Pictured is DeShawn and Gabriel - they wanted me to push and I was happy to oblige. They taught me something about joy.)