Student Chaplains Equipped for Disaster Response

billy graham outreach

Sometimes, all it takes is a moment.

When the world is crashing down like it was for many Montcoal, W.Va., residents after the devastating coal mining accident in April 2010—life seems to stand still. Or run in slow motion.

But when JesseRuth, then 16, began to minister to children whose family members were among the 29 who perished in the disaster, it was a moment that sparked a new idea for ministry at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

“In that moment,” said Preston Parrish, JesseRuth’s father and BGEA’s executive vice president of ministry, “we glimpsed how Christian teens could be used by God to help other young people who are going through crises, to experience Christ’s love for them.”

Parrish had brought his family to the mining town to join crisis-trained chaplains with BGEA’s Rapid Response Team. The Student Chaplain Ministry didn’t begin that day, but the seed had been planted. Students ministering to students in a time of disaster? Looking through the lens of ministry impact, it made perfect sense.

“Actually, it was one of our chaplains who, watching the interaction, first suggested it,” Parrish said. “We began to talk about what could happen if we had a core of student chaplains trained and equipped and prepared to work alongside our Rapid Response chaplains, especially to care for teens and children in the wake of disasters.”

Months later, something similar happened following the tornadoes that ravaged Tuscaloosa, Ala. On that particular day, Preston and JesseRuth were walking through a devastated neighborhood, talking and praying with victims.

“We came across a teenage boy who was just sitting there, staring in shock off into the air,” Parrish recalled. “We stopped and I tried to engage him in conversation, and he responded a little bit.

“But then as JesseRuth began to talk to him, one teenager to another, he really began to warm up, to talk more, and his brother came out and joined us.”

After listening and sharing with the two teenagers, JesseRuth led the two boys in prayer.

“It encourages me, and excites me, to see this new way for young people who love Jesus Christ to have a real impact for His Kingdom,” Parrish said.

JesseRuth, now 17 and in her senior year of high school, has a heart for students dealing with personal crisis, having lost her older brother Nathan during her pre-teen years.

“When she was 11 years old, her brother died in a rock-climbing accident,” Parrish said. “She was introduced at a fairly young adolescent age to the need of dealing with the storms that come to us in life, regardless of what age we are or if we’re in a Christian family.

“A lot of tragic events have happened in the lives of her friends and others her age. Young people today desperately need to understand that Jesus Christ loves them and offers them hope and will be their solid rock foundation for this life and for eternity, if they’ll place their faith in Him.”

And that has been the primary role of the Rapid Response Team since it began: to share the love and hope of Jesus Christ with people facing devastating crises in their lives. During the past decade, Rapid Response chaplains have shared that love in the midst of more than 110 disasters, providing emotional and spiritual comfort to the hurting.

Last November, a pilot training session for the Student Chaplain Ministry was held at the BGEA offices in Charlotte, and another training session is planned this year (Nov. 12), at the First Free Church in Manchester, Mo.

“We have surveyed churches across the country who have strong youth ministries, and every one of them is thrilled,” said Jack Munday, BGEA’s Rapid Response Team director. “If there’s any one segment of our society who is going through crisis, it’s kids.”

And while it’s not always a literal storm, there are figurative floods and tornadoes that a large percentage of students are dealing with on a regular basis.

“Crisis is crisis,” Munday said. “Maybe their parents are getting divorced. Maybe they’ve had a brother or sister commit suicide. Maybe they’ve lived in the same town for 10 or 15 years, and now they’re getting foreclosed and moving to another town.

“For many kids, that is their 9/11.”

Munday sees the Student Chaplain Ministry picking up right where Dare to Be a Daniel—BGEA’s evangelism training program aimed at tweens ages 9-11—leaves off.

“I think it’s a great next step to Dare to be a Daniel,” he said. “As these 14-to-17-year-olds mature and grow, the next step for them would be as full-fledged chaplains, who deploy to disasters around the world.”

Munday can’t help but envision God using an entire family, or maybe several members, to minister during a devastating event—both to adults and their children.

“What a powerful missions trip that might be for a parent and a child to go to a catastrophic event,” Munday said. “Now it will be possible to bring their teenager who has been trained (by BGEA) and do ministry together.”

And ultimately, the goal is to train students to be ministers of the Gospel not only during their teenage years, but also through their entire adult lives.

“The training is applicable for everyday life,” Munday said. “We want these kids to be prepared for ministry, not just for the next day, but to be able to deploy with us in the months and years ahead.”

And it all began with a single moment.

Used with permission of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

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