For Billy Graham Rapid Response Team (BG-RRT) Chaplain Richard Brown, ministering to the survivors of Hawaii’s devastating wildfires is deeply personal.
Richard Brown’s parents moved to Hawaii to start a church in 1965, when he was a baby. He spent part of his life in Maui, which recently suffered multiple wildfires including one in Lahaina, the deadliest U.S. fire in more than 100 years.
Dry weather and powerful winds from Hurricane Dora created perfect conditions for flames to spread rapidly across Maui in early August. BG-RRT quickly deployed a team of crisis-trained chaplains, most of whom were from Hawaii, to work alongside disaster relief ministry Samaritan’s Purse.
Brown is a retired police officer who lives in North Carolina and serves as BG-RRT’s senior manager of deployment and operations. His parents and brother still live in Maui. Their homes were destroyed, along with their church.
When Brown arrived in Maui to offer emotional and spiritual care, the death count was nearing 100, and more than a thousand people were still missing.
“The hardest part about the ministry is just hearing the devastating stories,” Brown said.
The chaplains ministered to a waitress awaiting news of missing family members. They heard a couple describe how they escaped the fire by jumping off a wall into the ocean—with three cats in carriers—and treading water for hours until a Good Samaritan pulled them from the sea.
“Another story that I heard personally was that [a family] could see the smoke, which looked like it was about 500 yards away. And it was like, ‘Well, we’ve got time.’ So they started packing things up,” Brown said. “Less than 10 minutes later, they could feel the heat, they could smell the smoke. And as they were getting the kids in the car, ashes and embers were flying over them. As they drove out, the yard was on fire.”
Chaplain couple Lisa and Clayton Young, both born and raised in Oahu, drove up to Kula, part of Maui’s Upcountry region about 30 miles inland, to see whom they might minister to.
“We saw a whole street, right and left of the road, all burnt to the ground,” Lisa said. “And so we knew, ‘OK, this is the spot.’”
They met a middle-aged couple living in a house that somehow was still standing.
“This house had been surrounded by fire,” Clayton said. “The gulch next to them was on fire, the house behind, the house in front, the house across.”
Barely escaping the flames with their lives and their home caused the couple to think about life after death. The wife quickly asked the chaplains to pray for her soul, telling them that she had prayed a salvation prayer many times in the past.
“And I said, ‘I can lead you in a prayer, but it’s not a magic prayer,’” Clayton said. “And I started sharing the Gospel.” He explained that all of humanity has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) but that God sent His only Son to Earth on a rescue mission.
Dying in a fire is tragic, Clayton explained, but the ultimate tragedy is dying in sin without Christ. “That’s the worst thing that could ever happen to a person,” he said, “because you’d be separated from a holy God for all of eternity.”
An assistant pastor and retired high school biology teacher, Clayton shared a difficult truth spoken by Jesus—one the couple understood more clearly after surviving the fire.
“I told them, ‘By the grace of God, you guys got spared.’ Because they were surrounded by fire. I said, ‘In hell, the fire is not going to be quenched (Mark 9:48).
“‘This [Maui] fire is quenched. The fire is out. But in hell, the fire goes on forever, and we don’t want to go there. And Christ is the only One who can save us, and He demonstrated His love by going to the cross to save you. That’s how much He loves you.’”
Clayton carefully walked through the Steps to Peace With God booklet, from sin to repentance to faith in Christ. Then he brought the conversation back to the woman’s original request: to pray for her salvation. Both she and her husband prayed to receive Jesus.
Lisa called the encounter one of many divine appointments in Maui. “It really feels like this is where we’re supposed to be right now,” she said.
As the chaplains follow the Holy Spirit’s lead, Richard Brown says the “aloha spirit” is alive across Maui, and local believers are shining the light of Christ.
“God is walking with us through this,” Brown said. “The hope that we can share will help this island work through the loss that they’ve suffered. Because, like my dad said, ‘Without faith, how do you get through something like this?’” ©2023 BGEA
Kristy Etheridge is a freelance writer and editor who lives in New York City with her husband and two young children.
Photo: Wayne Hancock/©2023 BGEA