Published Apr 04, 2023
In August 2020, the state of California began housing evacuees from the Santa Cruz fires at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove. The pandemic brought about changes to every segment of life, and disaster relief was no exception. Suddenly, congregate shelters – shelters set up to house dozens of people under one roof – were no longer an option. Asilomar was available because conferences and large group meetings had all been canceled. It was a good solution to a difficult problem, but it created a new challenge for CSBC Disaster Relief. Prior to the pandemic, our chaplains had often been called on to provide spiritual and emotional care to people displaced during disasters and housed in congregate shelters. At Asilomar, clients were housed in separate rooms and were not allowed to gather indoors. Even the meals DR provided were delivered directly to clients’ rooms; no personal contact was allowed. Opportunities to connect with those we were serving, and even with state employees and other relief organizations, were few.
On day two of this deployment, I went to check in with the shelter manager. She confirmed with me that I was a chaplain and then told me I was needed in the parking lot. She said there was a disturbance, and she needed me to go and speak with the woman causing the problem. I was new to chaplaincy, and handling parking lot disturbances was not something I had prepared myself for. Feeling inadequate and not knowing what I would do or say, I headed to the parking lot.
The woman I met had been displaced from her home by a fire, had little money, had no place to go, and had no idea what she would find when she was allowed to return to her property. She did have her dogs, and she had her car. Because pets were not allowed inside the shelter, she was sleeping in her car with her dogs. She was upset, scared, a bit disoriented, and quite loud in her complaints. Her erratic behavior was causing problems among the other people camping in the parking lot. I introduced myself, and she agreed to sit and talk with me. We walked away from the others, found a bench, and soaked up the sunshine for a few minutes. She began to tell me her story, how she ended up in Santa Cruz, how she lived, and what her dogs meant to her. I realized that what she needed at that moment was simply to talk. She needed to untangle her scattered thoughts and know that someone was listening and that someone cared. There was nothing I could do to fix any of her problems – we both knew that. Because I was a chaplain, she talked a bit about her experience with faith and her beliefs about God. We had a sweet time of prayer and shed a few tears. I walked her back to the parking lot and told her I would check on her tomorrow. I returned to the shelter and told the manager that I thought she would be ok for the day. She was. I looked for her the next day, but she and her dogs had moved on. I continued to pray for her and hoped that she and her dogs were well and that she was on her way to recovering from this crisis.
It was my first experience in chaplaincy. I was unsure of myself and more than a little intimidated about walking into a parking lot ‘situation.’ The circumstances were certainly unique, but every chaplaincy contact is unique. Each contact is as unique as the person in crisis. I may have helped that woman just a little on that day. Simply by listening to her, I was able to provide the emotional and spiritual care she needed right at that moment. She helped me too. She made me a better chaplain by reminding me of the significance of time, attention, and presence.
I am grateful to her for that.