As it became clear that the nation’s fourth-largest city, Houston, stood directly in Hurricane Harvey’s path, Franklin Graham recognized that tens of thousands would likely be displaced from their homes and would end up in shelters. They would be afraid, unsure what life would hold after the storm. They would need more than just a place to eat and sleep.
So Franklin directed the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team (RRT) to send chaplains not only to Samaritan’s Purse worksites but also to all of the official shelters in Houston.
Houston’s First Baptist Church quickly set up cots and other supplies to serve as a base of operations for the chaplains. Kevin Williams, manager of emergency response and logistics for the RRT, was point man for the ministry in shelters.
“This is a time of trauma and suffering,” Williams said. “Grief followed by trauma, anger, hurt. People’s worlds are devastated.”
But the chaplains saw God move in the lives of those who were experiencing the ache of loss and uncertainty. “People were coming to the chaplains, opening their hearts,” Williams said. “Many were asking about assurance of their eternal destination and wanted to clarify that.”
Forge for Families, a Christian community center, housed some 300 people for several days as one of the Red Cross shelters in Houston.
Executive Director Dana Thomas said the first busload of displaced people arrived late one night. They had just lost everything, and many were separated from loved ones. Concern and despair showed in their eyes. In those first hours, staff at the facility needed to cook meals and address physical needs and logistics, so they weren’t able to minister spiritually as they would have liked.
Then five RRT chaplains arrived.
“For us, it was such a welcome thing,” Thomas said. “Immediately, there was a group that was focused on the concerns of people. There was a different presence. They were able to look at people, to be discerning and ask, ‘Can I pray for you?’ And they were able to have conversations with people about their spiritual journey.”
Soon, people were telling their stories to chaplains and bowing their heads to pray.
One young woman, Erica, had to flee the floodwaters four different times before she finally made it to safety. She realized her need for Jesus, and she prayed with a chaplain to receive Christ as her Savior.
When the Forge for Families shelter closed and the people were transported to a larger shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center, some of the chaplains traveled with them to continue to comfort and help them.
At the shelter in Houston’s NRG Center, one distraught woman saw a chaplain with a blue shirt approaching her. “She just poured out her tears as she spoke with that female chaplain,” said lead chaplain Cathy Norgaarden. The woman said she felt alone; most of her family was out of state. She and her young children had walked through the waters to find shelter.
The chaplain explained that if she would turn to Jesus Christ, she would never again be alone. Hearing that, the woman cried even harder. She said she wanted that; she wanted everything that has to do with Jesus Christ. She committed her life to Christ on the spot.
“It was beautiful,” Norgaarden said, “to see the transaction and the timing and the placement of the people God wanted to use that day.”
As of Sept. 11, 48 chaplains had ministered in Houston-area shelters, and eight more ministered at a shelter in Dallas. Chaplains had prayed with more than 2,500 people in Texas shelters, with 33 praying to receive Christ.
“Where love is felt, the message is heard,” Williams said. “God opened the door for the chaplains to communicate the love and compassion of the Lord Jesus Christ. They had a ministry of presence, meeting people right where they were and listening. People recognized the love of God, and the message of Christ was heard. They could hear crystal clear.”