The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse have rushed spiritual and medical aid to the epicenters of the global pandemic in Europe and North America.
In the Italian city of Cremona and in New York’s Central Park, Samaritan’s Purse has established Emergency Field Hospitals to care for the sick, while crisis-trained chaplains with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team are comforting and praying for hundreds of desperate family members, first responders and health care personnel.
“We’re there in Jesus’ Name,” Franklin Graham said. “We want every person who comes into the hospital to know that God loves them and cares for them.”
Franklin and his son Will were at the BGEA headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, March 30 as three Rapid Response Team chaplains prepared to head to New York, where they would join three other chaplains to minister at the Central Park site.
“They are going right into a hot zone, in the middle of the battle,” Will said. “That’s where Christians should be—in the midst of the battle, not on the sidelines.”
Into the Heart of Italy’s Pandemic
According to Johns Hopkins University, Italy had more than 162,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of press time, and the country’s death toll—more than 21,000—is second only to the United States.
The Lombardy region of northern Italy has been particularly hard-hit, with more than 60,000 confirmed cases. In response to the outbreak, which overwhelmed the local medical community, Samaritan’s Purse airlifted a 68-bed Emergency Field Hospital to the city of Cremona along with 32 disaster response specialists, including doctors, nurses, lab technicians and paramedics. There are now more than 68 medical personnel on the ground in Italy.
Working together with the Italian Air Force and volunteers from the Lombardy Region Civil Protection, Samaritan’s Purse disaster response staff constructed the field hospital in less than 36 hours in the parking lot of the Cremona Hospital.
“Lombardy is leaving a dark period,” said Giulio Gallera, the minister of health for the Lombardy region, as the field hospital was dedicated to the community and to the Lord. “You are a bright light—the first bright light in our dark sky.”
Since opening March 20, the Cremona field hospital as of press time had treated more than 200 patients, and RRT chaplains Jason and Damaris Scalzi from New Jersey, along with Michael Schaafsma, a local Italian chaplain, had prayed with more than 700 people.
Upon the hospital’s opening, medical personnel and chaplains were eager to care for the physical and spiritual needs of all they came in contact with.
“The moment that we heard of the need here and the people dying and their sickness, we wanted to come and to be that ministry of presence,” Jason said, “to bring hope in this crisis situation, and also to provide emotional and spiritual care to not only the doctors and the medical personnel, but also the community. It’s the love of Christ that compels us to go, and that perfect love casts out all fear. So there’s no fear at all.”
Jason had shared this with a man who was in the midst of recovering from COVID-19. With Michael’s help translating, the man asked Jason and Damaris if they were afraid to be at the hospital among so many sick people.
The chaplains knew God was opening a door for them to share the hope they have in Jesus Christ. After sharing the Gospel and explaining to the man that he was loved by God, the man prayed and put his faith in Jesus. Afterward, Jason was able to give the man an Italian Bible that the chaplains received earlier that day. A local pastor had donated three cases of Bibles after chaplains prayed with him as he grieved the loss of three members of his congregation.
“Just to see the amazing transformation,” Jason said. “If just that one person came to faith in Christ, everything else was worth coming here to serve.”
To help spread the Gospel further, chaplains are handwriting greetings in each donated Bible, giving one to every patient who is discharged from the Emergency Field Hospital.
There aren’t many churches in Cremona, and evangelical Christians represent only about 1% of Italy’s 60 million population. “The local churches are precious—a precious few, and they are very encouraged by our presence here in Italy and in the city of Cremona,” said Hans Mannegren, director of European Affairs for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Though Lombardy remains Italy’s hardest-hit region, the effects of the coronavirus are being felt throughout the entire country.
During this difficult time, Margaret Gigliotti, a resident of Pratola Peligna, a town more than 350 miles south of Cremona, said despite the heaviness from the outbreak, there is some good coming from it: “We pray more and think more of our God.”
“Sometimes we feel fine because we’ve been working in the house and getting things done,” Margaret said. “Other times we feel fear and a big weight on our backs because of the uncertainty of it all. Fear that we may get sick. And most of all worried about the future.”
Michael Schaafsma, the local chaplain working with the RRT, said the virus is almost like an invisible enemy outside that people can’t see, yet it’s touching them.
“My neighbor passed away just the other day,” he said. “I feel like the enemy is right on the street. I currently live in Milan, and we’re all under lockdown in our homes. When the call came to come down here and be an interface with Samaritan’s Purse and the civilian population here, I was more than happy to come. Who else can you live for but for Jesus?”
Amid the outbreak that has locked down the entire country, there is hope.
“There is a lot of fear and panic around the world, but we trust that God is in control,” said Franklin Graham.
“The safest place to be is in God’s will,” Damaris said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m home or here. The coronavirus is really affecting the globe. I’d rather be in the midst of a place where God can use me.”
Responding to the Crisis in New York
By the end of March, hospitals in New York were running critically short of masks, gowns, gloves and other supplies, and health care workers were themselves falling victim to the coronavirus. One doctor said the conditions were like working in a petri dish. Confirmed cases in New York City alone had topped 47,000—and this roughly a month before the predicted peak in the state.
To help meet the urgent need, Samaritan’s Purse—in partnership with Mount Sinai Health System and intergovernmental agencies, set up a 68-bed respiratory care unit—similar to the one in Italy—in the East Meadow of Central Park, just across Fifth Avenue from Mount Sinai’s main campus.
The unit is staffed by more than 100 disaster response specialists, including doctors, nurses, paramedics, lab technicians and other critical support personnel.
“We are grateful for the collaboration with Samaritan’s Purse, who have come to the aid of the people of Italy and now New York,” said Margaret Pastuszko, executive vice president, chief operating officer and chief strategy officer for the Mount Sinai Health System. Serving alongside the Samaritan’s Purse staff are chaplains from the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, offering spiritual help and prayer to those affected.
Whether it’s health care professionals or chaplains, the volunteers are in these hot zones to minister with the love of Jesus Christ.
Franklin explained to members of the media on March 30: “It was in the news yesterday—an article that just touched my heart. A person was saying that their loved one had passed away, and they died alone, ‘because we could not come into the hospital to be with them.’
“I want Mount Sinai to give us those that have no hope. Those that aren’t going to make it. Give them to us. And if some of them pass away, I can promise that they will not die alone. Our doctors and nurses will pray for them. Our chaplains will be there to pray with the families. We want people to know that God hasn’t abandoned, God hasn’t forgotten, God hasn’t turned His back. This is an opportunity to share with New York and with the world the hope that we have. And that hope is in God and His Son, Jesus Christ.”
Upon their arrival in New York City, chaplains immediately went to work making connections with police and fire departments, as well as with EMS workers. While one chaplain went into the hospital wards and prayed for the staff and the rooms where treatment would take place, another chaplain helped with hospital setup and talked with medical staff about their homes, jobs and everyday life, letting them know the chaplains would stand beside them every step of the way.
The chaplains were doing prayer walks around both hospitals when they came upon a nurse who was struggling with the fact that families were not allowed to visit their sick loved ones in the hospital. The nurse was filled with fear and anxiety—hurting, sad and lost. They asked if they could pray for her, and she accepted the offer. The chaplains prayed for her family and for peace and strength. She was smiling as she went back inside the hospital.
The chaplains, like the Samaritan’s Purse medical personnel, are putting themselves in a potentially deadly situation by serving at the heart of the crisis. But that’s exactly the kind of thing Christians have been doing for more than 2,000 years (see article on pages 20-21). They do it “because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5, NKJV).
“I knew that I was supposed to go,” said Kevin Williams, manager of emergency logistics and special ministry for the RRT. Along with other law enforcement, Williams, as a state correctional officer, served for six months at Ground Zero after 9/11. “For me personally, I’m just going back home. Just going back home in a time of crisis to help meet people right where they are in their time of suffering.”
The chaplains wear protective masks at all times when they are outside the hospital. Inside, they wear full protective gear as they minister to the spiritual and emotional needs of patients and medical staff.
“My prayer is that the light and the hope of the Lord Jesus Christ would shine brightly,” Williams said. “And it would shine so strong through Central Park that it would radiate through the rest of the borough and New York City.”
Franklin expressed confidence that God will bring good out of the grim circumstances.
“God may be using this to get our attention, to wake our nation up,” he said. “We’ve taken our eyes off of God. And maybe God is saying, ‘Turn to Me and look to Me, and trust Me.’ We need to put our faith and trust in God during these days.
“Right now, science doesn’t have the answer to this virus. Hopefully, there will be a vaccine sometime, but there’s nothing now. Really, the only hope is God.”
With additional reporting by Lizzy Long and Kristy Etheridge.
The Scripture quotation marked NKJV is taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version.
Photo: Kim Rowland/©2020 Samaritan's Purse