The 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire was the largest in Alberta history. This year’s wildfires in Alberta have kept chaplains busy dealing with all those affected. CNS photo/Chris Schwarz, Government of Alberta via EPA

Alberta’s wildfires keep chaplains on high alert

By  Andrew Ehrkamp, Canadian Catholic News
  • June 21, 2019

EDMONTON -- When disaster or tragedy strikes — like the forest fires that have been burning in northern Alberta — first responders are on the scene within minutes to provide urgent care and healing.

Even when they’re not needed, they’re on standby. Wildfire season in Alberta is also a time of heightened alert for chaplains — the first responders for spiritual care — who are ready to serve if disaster strikes.

Fr. Felix Kusamba, a chaplain at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital, is on edge as he reads and watches news coverage of the wildfires.

“I’m anxious,” says Kusamba. “Maybe I’ll get the call. And I will go.” 

Six thousand residents in High Level, MacKenzie and Northern Lights counties, and First Nations in northwestern Alberta are returning to the homes after being chased out by smoke and flames for roughly two weeks. Another 4,400 residents of the Wabasca area are still displaced due to mandatory evacuation orders.

Just like any first responder, chaplains rush to the scene, whether it’s on a large scale where hundreds have been displaced by disaster or on a deeply personal level with a family dealing with sickness or death. 

If first responders treat physical wounds, chaplains treat those that are invisible — spiritual wounds. Their first aid tools aren’t bandages and gauze; they’re faith and presence.

In Edmonton, six Catholic chaplains — three clergy and three lay people with specialized clinical pastoral training — stand ready to respond. 

Based at the Royal Alexandra and University of Alberta hospitals, the chaplains provide pastoral and spiritual care to individuals, families and staff at times of crisis. Clergy chaplains can provide the sacraments of Anointing of the Sick and confession, while lay chaplains can provide the Eucharist and may baptize in an emergency. 

“We’re at death. We’re at withdrawal of life support. We’re at people’s worst days. Every day,” said Molly Chu, who serves at the university hospital. “Do I like seeing people’s suffering? No, not at all. But I know God’s love is there.”

Teresa Kellendonk, who supervises the chaplains in her role as head of pastoral care for the archdiocese, says spiritual pain is unique. “It’s a wounding of a different kind, but it’s still — for that person — it can be catastrophic. Chaplains hold a person’s story in a different way than a counsellor would, because we’re going to be answering the questions of the spiritual … ‘Where is God in all of this for me?’ ”

When they are on call, the chaplains can get summoned at any time of day or night. They begin with the simple, but profound, act of letting people speak and listening without judgment. 

“So much of it is listening to the story. It’s an unfolding story. It’s where they are and where they’ve come. They’re in trauma,” said Chu, a chaplain for six-and-a-half years.

It’s indicating “I am here. I am present. That’s huge. Someone is here. Because not everyone wants to tell their story. Some people can’t speak,” Chu said. “I can’t say enough about it. That’s the essence of it. That’s the way God is to us, that’s the presence.”

The evacuation of more than 80,000 people from Fort McMurray three years ago, fleeing the largest wildfire in Alberta history, has become a high water mark for chaplains. And it’s perhaps a situation that best describes the type of work they do on a daily basis.

The Fort McMurray fire began on May 1, 2016. For chaplains, it was the equivalent of a code red, a situation that called upon all of their training and expertise. Hundreds of evacuees were temporarily housed at the Edmonton Expo Centre. Under an agreement with the City of Edmonton, the Aachdiocese responded to the call: Send your chaplains.

When Kusamba and his fellow chaplains walked into the Expo Centre, they were stunned. 

“It was a new city,” Kusamba said. “People were everywhere. Services like washrooms, food, health services, some room for kids, places for prayer, it was very well organized.”

The only instruction to the chaplains: “If you see people, go and talk to them. Go. Don’t wait. Just go.”

Kusamba walked up and down the aisles, scanning the crowds. Many were in shock and in tears. He would ask a simple question: “How are you doing?”

“I saw a lot of tears. And regret. Some were asking ‘Are we going back? Are we going to work again?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. Just tell me what you saw, what happened to you.’ 

“They were telling the way they saw the fire coming to them. They told me their loss, loss of their dog, loss of everything, loss of their world, loss of schools, loss of their kids’ friends — they don’t know where they are. It was about loss of their relationship with the city. … The first intervention was to listen.”

The Fort McMurray evacuees eventually began telling their stories, and some even began to laugh, Kusamba recalled. “They were repeating the event. ‘Do you remember what we did the night before the fire?’ a wife would ask her husband. After the shock, it was kind of a cool-down, becoming a friend with the event and the memory.”

As a priest, Kusamba offered to hear confessions. Some evacuees simply asked for a blessing. Others had larger, more existential questions.

“Some asked this question: ‘Where is God now, in my life? I lost everything. I left my country. I left my home to come here and work and now I lost my house.’ I remember one evacuee I used to talk with. He said, ‘Why do you think God should be involved in this situation?’ I said, why not?”

Kusamba did what all chaplains do. “I worked with him to show the face of love of God. 

“God is more spacious, more big than one event in our lives. God is more than fire. God is love. God is forgiveness. God is mercy. God is a journey to a light, a way. Maybe you can find a kind of balance to see that sometimes things happen. It’s just nature, and God is more than nature.”

Experts say the effects of climate change may make devastating wildfires, like Fort McMurray in 2016, Slave Lake in 2011 and High Level this year, more of a reality. If that’s the case, chaplains say, their work will become even more important

“We need to be aware that these things can happen,” Chu said. “My hope is that we never stop caring. I hope we don’t get used to this. Yeah, another fire. I hope that our wanting to help stays high. I hope we never get fatigued as communities that are not affected. I hope this doesn’t become so common that we stop.”

(Grandin Media)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.