A ministry team responds to disasters

January 26, 2011

Three years after a gunman opened fire and killed six people at a
City Council meeting in Kirkwood, Missouri, pastor David A. Holyan found
himself in Tucson, Arizona, within days after the January 8 shootings
that killed six and injured 13, including Con­gresswoman Gabrielle
Giffords.

Holyan, 46, pastor of First Pres­byterian Church of
Kirkwood, had be­come an accidental expert in what the Presbyterian
Church (U.S.A.) calls "human-caused disaster" response. More precisely,
he is a member of the three-­person Presbyterian Disaster Assistance's
National Response Team.

Holyan's expertise comes from the victim
side. His church became a spiritual hub for the community in the wake of
the shooting rampage on February 7, 2008, that claimed the lives of six
people—including two of Holyan's parishioners and the gunman.

In
the hours after the 2008 shooting, Holyan was at the hospital with staff
member Cathy Yost, whose husband, Kenneth, the city's public works
director, had been killed. "My instinct is to step into the hard places
and be calm, but nothing prepares you for this," Holyan said. "You can't
prepare for human-caused disaster. It rattles you to the core of your
being."

As he took in the scene of the shootings, his cell phone
rang. It was Paul Reiter, the regional leader for the PCUSA. "He asked
what I needed, and I said I didn't know what I needed," Holyan said. "He
told me the PDA would show up soon. I said OK and hung up the phone. I
had no idea how that would help."

By the next day, a team from
Pres­byterian Disaster Assistance had flown in to help Holyan help his
flock. That weekend, as dazed parishioners looked to him for context and
meaning, Holyan had to give a sermon that would attempt to make sense
of the senseless.

The next day, he preached at Ken Yost's funeral
service. Kirkwood mayor Mike Swoboda, who was shot and died of
complications seven months later, was also a member of First
Presbyterian.

Holyan said those days were the hardest of his
career, and they prepared him for his current role in PDA—able to
provide perspective from the point of view of someone who has
experienced horror firsthand.

When eight people were killed in a
massive gas pipeline explosion in northern California in September,
Holyan was part of the team called in to help. "It's very redemptive for
me," said Holyan. "The horror of what happened in Kirkwood was
transformed to become wisdom for others going through a similar
situation."

Holyan flew to Tucson three days after the attack on
Giffords and others, "showing up in the midst of mass confusion,
bewilderment and shock," he said.

The Missouri pastor was joined
at the scene by Laurie Kraus, pastor of Riviera Presbyterian Church in
Miami. Kraus has served on the PDA response team since its inception in
1996, according to Pres­byterian News Service. The third member of the
all-volunteer team in Tucson is retired businessman Rick Turner, a
member of John Knox Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina.

One
of the pastoral goals of Pres­byterian Disaster Assistance is the
"stabilization of the ministry, not individuals," Holyan said.
Ultimately, the wider community is served by concentrating on religious
leaders' mental and physical health.

"You need those who are being
pastoral to also be healthy," he said. "They're going to be the last
ones aware of how affected they are. A pastor's immediate instinct is to
care for others first, then the bigger system, then finally themselves,
when they figure out, 'Wait a second, I have no energy left."'

Invited
to a meeting with Tucson clergy, the trio of Presbyterian responders 
encouraged them to allow people "space" before pushing toward healing.
The pastor and his team were asked to attend the funeral of
nine-year-old victim Christina Greene. They also visited Northminster
Presbyterian Church where the oldest Tucson victim, Phyllis Schneck, 79,
worshiped.

Holyan plans to return to Tucson in March and again in May to make sure religious leaders are healthy.

Return
visits months and sometimes years later are typical for the PDA team
and mental health professionals with special training, John Robinson,
PDA associate for U.S. disaster response, told Presbyterian News
Service.

In a letter to Linda Valentine, executive director of the
PCUSA's General Assembly Mission Council, Kraus de­scribed her reaction
to the sermons by clergy colleagues in Tucson right after the tragedy
and on the Martin Luther King weekend: "I was struck, as I always am, by
the integrity, authenticity and vulnerability of faith leaders who step
into the pain and chaos of a human-caused disaster with words of
honesty and calls for the church's meaningful participation in the
healing of the community." —RNS and Presbyterian News Service