About 130 miles north in Fort Collins, Ginger and Denny Sanders expected their Friday would be similar to their Thursday—reaching out in the name of Jesus to homeowners affected by the destructive High Park fire. The couple had anticipated flying home to Alabama July 21 in time for Denny to head to Japan to help Samaritan’s Purse rebuild homes lost during the killer tsunami in 2011.
A sinister midnight act of violence in Aurora, outside Denver, changed everything.
Wearing a ballistics helmet, gas mask, and bullet-proof vest and leggings, an attacker detonated multiple smoke bombs at 12:39 a.m., then unloaded four weapons’ full of ammunition into an unsuspecting crowd attending a sold-out premier of the latest Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.” The Century Aurora 16 movieplex became the scene of horrific carnage as 12 people were killed and 58 injured.
Jack Dowling arose long before the crack of dawn that Friday and, as a professed news junkie, he scanned headlines on his phone. The first caption popping up was the mass shooting in Aurora. After an initial shock, he thought: Looks like something our chaplains will be responding to.
No sooner had that idea entered his mind than his cellphone rang. It was about 4:30 a.m., and Billy Graham Rapid Response Team deployment manager Al New was on the line.
“Jack, we need for you and Becca to head to Aurora,” Al said.
The Dowlings packed, grabbed a bite to eat and hit the road. They arrived around 7:45 at Gateway High School, where they were warmly welcomed and ushered in to offer emotional and spiritual care to people affected by the senseless tragedy.
Within minutes, God opened doors for Jack and Becca to have a “ministry of presence and prayer” among family members and friends of the victims, many of whom eventually heard that their loved one had died. Intense expressions of sadness and despair were heartwrenching.
“The hurt was so raw and so new,” Becca later said. “We heard their cries, their screams, their sobs. And so we thank God He allowed us the privilege to minister directly to them.”
Ginger and Denny arrived mid-morning, followed by other RRT chaplains in the ensuing hours. Joining the Dowlings, they showed and shared the love and compassion of Christ.
Later that night, Jack and fellow chaplain E.J. Hicks circulated among people gathered at a makeshift memorial site on the hillside across the street from the mall and theater where the shootings occurred. Candles, placards, flowers—and eventually 12 white wooden crosses—graced the lawn.
E.J. started talking and ministering to a few people and asked if they’d like to pray together. Then E.J. noticed several more standing in close proximity. “Would you like to come over and pray?” he asked them. They, too, circled up. Noticing some more people, E.J. encouraged them to come over and pray. Soon, about 25 people huddled around E.J., with a few more within earshot of the group.
Before bowing his head, E.J. sensed freedom to talk briefly about the difficulty of the moment and how God wanted to bring comfort and peace in the midst of pain and sorrow. E.J. shared how much God loved them and how God demonstrated that love through Christ’s death on the cross. Before the prayer circle broke, 12 individuals raised their hands indicating their desire to give their hearts to the Savior. E.J. led them in a prayer of commitment.
In the days that followed, additional opportunities to minister surfaced. Chaplains met and prayed with families at local hospitals, where the wounded were being treated. They encouraged police officers, EMT personnel and hospital staff. Chaplains also attended vigils and memorial services.
One afternoon soon after the shooting, Ginger Sanders and Toni New (wife of Al New) were in the ladies room at the Aurora mall when in walked a female security guard. She was crying and said she was just trying to get out of the public’s eye. Ginger and Toni comforted her and prayed with her.
About 20 minutes later, the same security guard tracked down Ginger and Toni. With her was her 19-year-old daughter. “She was dealing with some things unrelated to the killings, but that event raised some other issues, and the daughter expressed her need for help,” Ginger explained later. Ginger and Toni related appropriate Scripture—and also conveyed the Gospel message. “The girl confessed her need for Christ and prayed to receive Him,” Ginger said.
While attending an outdoor memorial service at the high school, Toni noticed a young lady sitting on the ground with a set of crutches lying beside her. Toni knelt on the ground and, after introducing herself, reached over and gave the young lady a hug. The girl, whose name is Mona, showed no emotion and appeared to be in a daze.
Toni asked Mona to share her story. Mona said she was in the theater and had been shot but was now recovering. She introduced the young man next to her as her boyfriend. He had carried her out of the theater. After talking with Mona and her boyfriend, Toni prayed with the two.
On a different night, while attending another memorial for the same victim at the school, Toni saw Mona and her boyfriend, and both said, “We remember you. We’re glad to see you.” The two reached over and hugged Toni.
Two other survivors of the theater shooting stood at the memorial site, still stunned. Two RRT chaplains approached them and asked how they were holding up. The couple said they were struggling in the aftermath of their nightmarish ordeal. “Our tempers are shorter, and we’ve been arguing more since that night,” they said.
One chaplain gently asked the two, “If you had not made it out of the theater, do you know where you would be spending eternity?” Mary Sue said she did not know.
The chaplains explained how she could know, pointing to such Bible verses as 1 John 5:13—”I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Mary Sue accepted Christ into her life right then. And she left that memorial site with His promised assurance.
RRT chaplains not only had the privilege of extending the comfort and hope of Jesus Christ in Aurora, they invested weeks this summer spreading His love among survivors of the historic fires in Colorado and New Mexico and a record-setting flood in Minnesota.
Towering infernos scorched thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of homes in the two western states. And the worst flash floods in more than a century ravaged parts of northern Minn.
BGEA, working in partnership with Samaritan’s Purse, deployed RRT chaplains to the three states. Throughout those deployments, 93 chaplains prayed with nearly 3,000 people, with more than 90 spiritual decisions being made.