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Reflections from a Pastor and Crisis Care Chaplain

Posted: 5/28/20 at 2:30pm. Written by Richard Sandberg.

Richard Sandberg

Richard Sandberg, a BGAV pastor and crisis care chaplain, shared with us some insights and reflections he has put in writing regarding his roles in chaplaincy and pastoral ministry during the COVID-19 pandemic.

May 16, 2020. In the middle of a pandemic, much of our focus is on the enemy we can see. Many of us could say how many cases are in our county, or the latest death toll or unemployment rate, but we sometimes forget about the silent enemies many face… depression, loneliness, and a loss of hope. When I ask people how I can pray for them as they wait for their groceries at the food pantry, I expect people to ask for prayers for protection, healing for family members, or daily provision, but one request took me off guard. An old truck had pulled up with an elderly gentleman inside. He was wearing his navy cap, and I knew this frail and aging man had seen more than his fair share of tragedy. I thanked him for his service and asked how I could pray for him.  He said, “Last week my brother committed suicide. I guess he just didn’t feel like there was anything left to live for. As a family it is hard to even grieve, because we can’t even have a funeral.” I could see in his eyes the look of loneliness and quiet desperation he was describing in his brother.  I listened, and we prayed. As he was driving off ,I prayed that he would not fall to the same foe his brother had. This man’s brother was a casualty of a war that has an enemy we can’t see.  It is a battle that is fought with compassion and hope.  You my not think that you are in the front lines because you aren’t a doctor, but when you pray, reach out, and encourage, you are bringing a voice to a silent enemy that is rarely counted but has claimed too many.

May 14, 2020. As crisis care chaplains, our focus is often on the “victims” we have been sent to minister to.  I am often reminded, however, that our ministry to the responders is just as important. Since all this began, there has been one volunteer I see every time I go to serve. As a retired cop, he serves as a security officer for our community food pantry; and as you might expect, he sometimes has a gruff exterior.  There have been moments over the past few months where things have gotten a little intense, and some moments where I kind of wondered if he liked me very much. Through it all, I decided that I was determined to just be patient, shrug off tension, and go out of my way to show I cared. Today was a little slower than most, which gave the volunteers a little more time to talk between cars. In the void he mentioned that his daughter, a manager at a nursing home who has been devastated with the virus, is waiting for results to see if she is sick. When I walked over to ask him if I could pray for her, he said, “What I didn’t tell everyone else is that I am in a dark place. I had to put my mother in a nursing home, and it’s killing me. I can tell I’m taking it out on my wife, and I know I’m struggling, but I don’t know how to get out of it.” I listened, shared a few words of encouragement, and we prayed. Nothing I said magically made the weight of his burdens go away, but I hope he felt a sense of release in speaking them out loud and a sense of comfort to know that others cared.  The world is looking for helpers, but we should always remember that the helpers need help too.

Some days ministry is fun. Other days you have to choose to have joy when it doesn’t come naturally like those days it is cold and rainy, when your back is hurting, and especially when the people you are serving don’t always appreciate your sacrifice. I recall one day when a woman drove up the wrong direction in the pickup line. Our security officer asked her to turn around, and she didn’t see or hear him. He finally got her attention, but by that point his urgency to protect everyone had definitely rubbed her the wrong way.  When she circled back around, I walked up with a smile from ear to ear and introduced myself with all the enthusiasm I could muster. This immediately took her off guard. I knew she was ready to blast the first person she spoke to, but I could tell it was hard for her to yell at someone who was smiling. She started to lower her tone while attempting to complain about how she was stopped. I continued to smile, nod my head, and affirm her until she stopped in her sentence and asked, “Do you always smile like that?”

“A lot of times I can’t help it,” I replied, “because it is a joy to show our love for God as we serve our community. While our team is getting your groceries, I was wondering if there is any way I can pray for you and your family.” At this point she just looked dumbfounded. She knew I had heard the words that had just come out of her mouth a few minutes before, but my joy wasn’t a fake or forced kind. I knew I could rejoice in serving God and loving her on her bad day no matter how she treated us. Suddenly all her defenses dropped and she said, Yes…my son is in the hospital and was just diagnosed with COVID, and I would love it if you would pray for him.” As she left that day with a smile, I was reminded that you never know what is going on in someone’s life when you encounter them on one of their worst days. When life squeezes us, the world sees what is truly inside. As Christians filled with the Spirit of God, we have the most contagious thing in the world… joy.

May 11, 2020. Most of my ministry as a crisis care chaplain has been to adults, but we should never forget the toll disasters like these take on children. I recall two moms that pulled up to the food pantry who were managers at a local restaurant with their kids in the back. When I see kids, I often try to ask about where they go to school, as my wife is a fourth-grade teacher in the area. Most of the time the kids are shy and let their mothers answer, but not today. A boy in about first grade (the age of my son) piped up and started to talk about his school, his teacher, and what he missed while away. He was so anxious to retain my attention that he practically climbed over the back of his mom’s seat so he knew I could see his face and so he could see I was listening. I spent the next few minutes listening as he talked as fast as he could get the words out when I knew it was getting close to time for their groceries to come out and the next car would need to pull up. So as I always do, I turned to the ladies and asked if there was any way I could pray for them and their families. Without skipping a beat the boy said, “I’m scared. I don’t want my mother to die like my dad did.” In shock I stared at the little boy as he began to tell me how his father had heart issues several years ago and died unexpectedly. His mother sat in the front seat silently, and I could see hear eyes welling up.  Silently I asked God to help me hold it together, and I began to pray. I prayed that God would protect them, to help him not to be afraid, and to trust the God who loves him. After the prayer, the look on his face changed as if he had just accepted by faith that God was going to protect his mother. He had a big smile when his mother thanked me for the prayer and invited us to come see them sometime at their restaurant.  That day I was reminded once again that what we were there to give was a lot more than food. We were offering hope in the midst of fear.

April 28, 2020. In the midst of the greatest crisis that has occurred in our lifetime, I have been so proud to see the BGAV leading the way in helping our churches make an impact in local communities like mine. As a chaplain with the BGAV Crisis Care team, I have had the opportunity to not only help distribute food at the Louisa County Resource Council to those in need (funded in part by a BGAV COVID-19 grant) but also to pray with many of them. When I asked how I could pray, I spoke to a dad who had just lost his job, a mom whose son was sick, a nurse who was concerned about infection, a grandparent who was struggling to raise her grandkids, a senior whose brother had just committed suicide, and a little boy who asked me to pray his mom wouldn’t die like his dad had a few years ago.

One story I’d like to share demonstrates how much this crisis has turned people’s hearts towards the hope that we have.  Last week I looked up and knew something was wrong because our security officer pulled a car from the regular pickup line.  A little while later the car came back.  Immediately the security officer was on alert and approached the car, thinking there would be an impending confrontation. He motioned me over and asked if I could speak with the woman in the car. As a chaplain, I have had the opportunity to bring calm to other tense situations and diffuse hostility with a smile and kind word. When I approached the window, I was surprised at what came next. She said her daughter had been through the line earlier in the day and I had prayed with her. It meant so much to her that she had called her mother to tell her. When the mother heard that, she turned her car around. Even with ice cream and grandkids in the back, she wasn’t going to miss out on being prayed for. What started with anger and hostility earlier in the day ended with a sense of release, comfort, and joy that you could see in her eyes. This is one story of many that I could share of the impact that is being made for the kingdom of God. Thank you, BGAV, for partnering with us as we offer help at our community’s point of need and hope in Jesus’ name.

Richard Sandberg is Senior Pastor at Louisa Baptist Church and also serves as a BGAV Crisis Care Chaplain.