“It’s a ministry of presence,” says U.S. Missions chaplain Forest Willis as he stands a mere 75 feet from where search and rescue responders are carefully working through the rubble of the collapsed Champlain Towers South condominium in Miami. “We go around, talking to different ones . . . just letting them talk if they want to and giving them the opportunity to tell their stories.”
Willis has been an Assemblies of God-endorsed chaplain since 2015. He is also currently the emergency manager for the Southeast United States and the Caribbean working for the U.S. Coast Guard out of Miami. He says that chaplains from a variety of faith backgrounds have been onsite in rotating shifts since shortly after the collapse of the condo on June 24.
The ongoing presence of chaplains is an invaluable resource to victims, family members, first responders, and others as they attempt to cope with overwhelming loss. Willis notes that simply by chaplains making themselves available to talk — though it’s actually all about listening — they play a vital role in individuals’ mental health.
First responders and rescue workers at the site aren’t limited to south Florida. Willis says urban search and rescue teams arrived this week from Missouri, Indiana, New Jersey, Tennessee, Ohio, and Virginia to relieve the exhausted Florida crews. A search and rescue team from the Israeli Defense Forces is already part of the team.
“The governor also recently approved an all-volunteer Jewish Emergency Medical group to be onsite,” Willis says. “They will work with Jewish survivors as well as those who may have perished, to make sure their remains are treated according to their faith.”
As of July 6, 36 bodies have been recovered from collapsed condo, with 109 people still missing. Workers were, however, relieved to hear that the area was no longer expected to take a direct hit from Tropical Storm Elsa, allowing them to continue their search efforts. But with every passing minute, the hope to find survivors diminishes.
“it’s very slow, very hot work,” Willis says, estimating the temperature at 100 degrees with high humidity. He’s only slightly off. According to the National Weather Service, the heat index has regularly reached well above 100 degrees each day — hitting 112 on July 3. Willis says he’s working 12-hour shifts, every other day. The hope is to keep chaplains from burning out during the extended efforts.
“We are so glad that chaplain Willis is in the area and has been trained to deal with people in crisis,” states Manuel A. Cordero, senior director of Chaplaincy Ministries for AG U.S. Missions. “Beside the residents and families of the victims there is much ministry to be done with the first responders. God has placed him at the right place at the right time.”
One of the ways Willis has been able to impact first responders is by presenting them with a challenge coin. Common in the military, over the past decade, the tradition has extended into the realm of first responders. Each of the large, heavy coins features the service’s logo (firefighter, law enforcement, healthcare) on one side and the Scripture, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9 (NLT)” on the other side.
“I gave a coin to a firefighter, and he just broke down crying,” Willis says. “It’s amazing something that simple can mean so much . . . it meant a lot to him that somebody would give him something like that.” (Contact Chaplaincy Ministries if interested in helping to provide Challenge coins for chaplains.)
Michael Reighard, Critical Incident Ministries representative and director of 461 Response, observes: “At a time when the church struggles to get people back in its pews, response ministry is quickly becoming the link to connect hurting people to the healing touch of Christ.”
Although Willis believes not much time remains before the search and rescue efforts are deemed “recovery,” he asks for people to continue to lift up the survivors, family members, and workers in prayer in the days and weeks ahead. And if there be any survivors still in the rubble, that God would quickly guide workers to them. He also requests prayers for the chaplains of all faiths who themselves are being traumatized by being part of this horrific event.