In The Midst Of The Storm: Tyler’s Police Chaplains Answer The Call
Patrick Butler - Religion Editor
The Rev. Clara Gilbert finally sat still in a blue-cushioned chair after evacuees had gone home on Wednesday -- gone via buses to Beaumont or beyond after spending days on a cot at Harvey Convention Center.
It hadn’t been the most sedate of times.
Though a hard rain didn’t fall when it came to Tropical Storm Gustav, there were still attitudes and adjustments evacuees had to work through as they crammed themselves into less-comfortable quarters than home would have been under similar circumstances.
And Tyler Police Chaplain Clara Gilbert, pastor of Tyler’s First United Methodist Church, was there to give a hug, a smile, a prayer and some good advice.
“It was hard on some,” said Ms. Gilbert, as she recalled with a smile so many people she had encountered. “One girl with a child decided she’d had enough and was just going to go home on her own. She said, “They made us come here and we could have stayed home.”
“I told her, ’Don’t go. You never know what God is trying to protect you from. There could be trees down, or electricity out, or lack of law-enforcement in your neighborhood and you’d be at risk.’”
“I told her, ’These people here are bending over backwards for you. They’re waiting on you hand and foot. You have everything you need here’ and we had a word of prayer. That calmed her down.”
That’s what chaplains do, said Lt. Col. Billy Corn, the Task Force chaplain in East Texas. Corn was staying at the home of Tyler’s “lead” police chaplain, Jerry Page, a member of Green Acres Baptist Church.
“Our job is to look into the faces of everyone and detect any stress they are going through,” Corn said. “The Guard provides security; the Red Cross supplies their physical needs. Chaplains provide for any spiritual and emotional needs people -- both workers and those receiving help -- might need. In a situation like this, there is stress everywhere.”
Three Tyler police chaplains -- Ms. Gilbert, Page and Anwar Khalifa of the East Texas Islamic Society -- augmented Corn’s four chaplains who were spread out in shelters from Troup to Tyler.
There was plenty to do, said Page.
“I’m exhausted,” he said with a wide grin at the convention center on Wednesday. “You work a full day and then come here every night. It’s a lot to handle. People need to talk, be encouraged, hugged, kids played with, and parents prayed with. There were a lot of situations that came up -- people issues, personal issues and religious issues.”
Such as when a woman getting ready for Ramadan, the annual fast and religious observances for Muslims, was doing her ceremonial cleansing in a common sink. Concerned Red Cross workers were wary about health and sanitation issues, said Ms. Gilbert. Communication between cultural lines was potentially sticky.
“Here you had two goals headed towards each other, Physical and spiritual. There was a breakdown of communication,” said Ms. Gilbert who was on “chaplain call” for the month of September and on hand. Tyler Police Chaplain Anwar Khalifa was called in. When he arrived, he immediately saw what was happening.
“Ramadan is very meaningful to Muslims, because it’s a time of purification of the soul, a focus on thinking of others, fasting and giving sacrificially,” he said. “Muslims don’t have to fast when we’re under stress or traveling, and fleeing a hurricane definitely fits that description. These Muslims didn’t have to observe Ramadan, but religion takes on more meaning when you’re under stress, and they wanted to do go through it. They knew we understood what they were doing and that we wanted to help them.”
“I went to the head chaplain (Cross) and inquired if there were a better way to accomplish the ceremony,” said Ms. Gilbert. “We found a solution and there was communication and clear understanding.”
And a solution.
An area used by aid workers to wash up was made available to the Muslims. Khalifa also brought his daughters, Rana and Sara, 20 and 17 years old, down to offer some cultural support.
“We brought them some foods that’d you normally see at Ramadan,” he said. “Rana and Sara wore their hajib’s (head scarves), so if there were any other Muslims in the center, they’d see that and come over. Everything worked out fine.”
That’s exactly what chaplains want to see, Corn said.
“Chaplains make spiritual and emotional contact to relieve stress,” he said. “We learn to look for clues -- a lost child, a hurting elderly person, a divided family, people struggling with living in unfamiliar surroundings with unfamiliar faces all around them.”
As Tyler’s police chaplains withdrew, as the crowds were bused out Wednesday, Corn and the Texas State Guard Task Force were getting ready for potential evacuees from Hurricane Ike that could churn its way right into Texas.
“We’re not leaving,” he said. “It’s easier for us to stay and see if Ike is going to force people to flee than for us to go back and then be recalled. If anything happens, we’ll be here.”
They will be there -- waiting to help relieve stress when hurricanes hit home.