Kenny Vaughn remembers the ring.
It was December 2017 and Vaughn was part of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association Rapid Response Team.
Volunteers had been sifting through the ashes of a 2,000-square-foot home destroyed by fire in Santa Rosa, Calif.
The homeowner was a man in his 50s, whose wife had died five years earlier. He just wanted to find some memento of their lives together.
Volunteers were about ready to give up when they found it — his wife’s wedding ring. The widower was overjoyed.
“I can leave now,” the man said. “I can move forward.”
Today, Vaughn is in Fremont where he sees homes — not damaged or ruined by fire—but water.
And like others in the rapid response team, he seeks to bring hope and the love of Christ to those affected by historic flooding in the Fremont area.
Vaughn, who is from Prescott, Ariz., is chaplain coordinator of the rapid response team, which came to Fremont on March 20.
The team began with six specially trained chaplains in the local area. Typically, a group of chaplains will stay for a week at a time with new ones arriving each Sunday.
As of Monday, the team has had 24 different chaplains from various states, including Ohio, Idaho, Washington and Arizona.
BGEA is an outreach organization led by the late evangelist’s son, Franklin.
After the 911 terrorists’ attacks, Franklin, who oversees BGEA and the Samaritan’s Purse ministry, wanted to see how they could help in New York City.
“What he saw was that clergy — as well as everyone — was overwhelmed,” Vaughn said. “He envisioned a team of chaplains who would be crisis trained.”
Graham began to recruit first responders and have them trained in critical incident stress management. Now, anyone who has a heart to encourage and help other people may apply.
Chaplains are vetted; background checked and must go through an initial training. The primary eight- to 10-hour course is called, “Sharing Hope in Crisis.”
The course teaches chaplains how to approach people, what to say — and definitely what not to say.
“One of our primary objectives is to listen to people and just let them tell their story over and over,” Vaughn said. “These folks want to talk about the disaster, the storm, where they were, if they had to be rescued. They just want to talk.”
After a disaster, people go through various stages of grief which can vacillate back and forth as they try to make sense of the disaster they’ve experienced.
Chaplains are aware of signs, symptoms and stress levels and try to be very patient and respectful of where the people are, he said.
The chaplains know items being brought out of a person’s home may be damaged beyond repair. Such things are taken out in black garbage bags and put on a trash pile, but they are still that person’s possessions — their whole life that’s sitting on the street — and chaplains can’t be disrespectful.
“It may look like garbage, but it’s not garbage to those folks,” Vaughn said. “It’s their life, their prized possessions that are now having to be discarded.”
Volunteers with the Samaritan’s Purse organization will sift through ashes after a fire and find — maybe not a $500 gold watch — but some memento for a family.
“And it means everything to that family,” Vaughn said. “It brings closure to this horrible situation. Chaplains are blessed to be there at that time when those folks find those things — to encourage them that now they do have something from the past and they can move on into the future.”
Vaughn knows that for many people, this is a first-time, one-time life situation.
“The hope we share is in the Lord Jesus Christ. That is the bottom line. We know that is where folks are going to find their ultimate healing and that’s what they all need,” Vaughn said.
This is why BGEA partners with churches for those people who want to go further and find a good church home.
“And we direct them to the host church,” he said.
Chaplains also come alongside Samaritan’s Purse volunteers, who are right in the midst of the homeowner’s grief. The chaplains minister to the Samaritan’s Purse volunteers — watching for any signs of stress or overload — to help keep them emotionally and spiritually healthy.
The chaplains visit the homeowners and Samaritan’s Purse volunteers each day.
But they also minister to the community at large as they eat in restaurants or coffee shops, run to the store to buy something or get fuel.
They’re aware of the impact on the entire town and are always looking for people they can share with and encourage, he said.
It can be a stressful job to minister to people who’ve been through such devastation. Thus, chaplains debrief and must be taken care of, too, and only remain in an area for about a week.
“We don’t want them staying out in the field too long,” Vaughn said.
He also noted that chaplains must have training or be deployed every two years.
When there is a disaster, BGEA sends out a chaplain coordinator and a team of chaplains. The team can range from six to 12 chaplains, depending on the size of the disaster.
“They have an orientation there, site specific to the disaster,” Vaughn said. “We come alongside the church to encourage them and help them. We’re not here to take the place of the church.”
Chaplains know that a disaster involving 500 or 1,000 homes and families can be a lot for churches to handle.
“We want to be there for them and encourage them and we’re very well aware that when our work is done, they’re left behind with a lot of situations to deal with and people who are still hurting,” Vaughn said. “We continue to work with and train them in follow-up, discipleship making — whatever resources that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association might have to aid them in their recovery.”
Vaughn also noted that many homeowners are overwhelmed when a large group of Samaritan’s Purse volunteers and a chaplain arrives at their house. It gives them hope. They often can’t believe that someone, who they don’t even know, would come from miles away to help them.
“To me, that is the beginning of healing — is that showing up and being there and now their heart begins to know they have a hope and there is going to be a future,” he said.
Chaplains have a pamphlet that tells about the steps to finding peace with God and how to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Someone may have thought about this before, but after they’ve been thrust into a disaster they may take a deeper look at spiritual things and ask a lot of questions and chaplains are prepared to try to answer questions and encourage people — that there is hope.
“God is very active and alive in all of these disasters,” Vaughn said. “People are changed. Their circumstances are changed, but many of their lives are changed eternally as they find a faith they never knew existed and one of the things we keep track of are the folks who surrendered their lives to Christ in these disasters. We follow up with them and make sure they get plugged into churches and are taught and taken care of. One of our leadership described them as newborn babies. We don’t want to leave them on the doorstep. We want a good family to adopt them and take them in and raise them and that’s how we look at the church.”