Jack Richards and his fellow chaplains meet at 10 a.m. every day to pray and prepare for their interactions with rescuers and victims of last month’s landslide near Oso, Wash. During one of their meetings, one of the other chaplains announced he’d found their verse for the day. Since then, the ministers have continued to cling to Psalm 40:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
Five people, including one infant, survived the landslide that broke off a steep hill on March 22, roared across the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, and buried part of Oso, about 55 miles north of Seattle. A county medical examiner increased the death toll Wednesday to 29, though only 25 people have been officially named due to the difficulty of identifying the battered bodies. Eighteen people remain missing.
Nearly two weeks after the slide, the community is getting organized for healing. Local churches, businesses and other community members are coming together to jumpstart the recovery process. On Wednesday, Richards was able to be the conduit of some very good news for a family that lost their home in the disaster: Their bank had decided to forgive the 20 years left on their mortgage.
That kind of kindness comes with the area, said Richards, a retired Lutheran pastor and volunteer chaplain. Arlington, Darrington, and Oso, population 150, sit on about 25 miles of State Road 530. The people in the communities want to help each other. The high school in Darrington cancelled some sporting events to make food baskets, kits, and packs for the workers at the slide zone. “We have advised the Red Cross, ‘Do not go in there like God Almighty and start calling people clients and victims,’” Richards said.
Oso Community Chapel is serving as a coordination and supply center through its food bank and storage space. A new Internet hotspot just for mudslide search team members has turned the chapel into a base for chaplains and a break area for workers. Catholic Community Services has offered to pay for all funeral costs.
More long-term support is in the works, too. The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is pooling its efforts through a fund at Westminster Presbyterian Church in the nearby town of Everett. A joint committee of four area PCA congregations will decide whether to dispense money now or later. When long-term needs meet a waning national interest, pastor Doug Kothe told me Christians will be able “to let the people affected by this tragedy know they are not alone, they are not forgotten, and through our efforts to point them to Christ’s care for them.”
But for now, more than 250 searchers continue sifting through the mountainside by hand in treacherous conditions. Lt. Richard Burke of the Bellevue Fire Department said the rescuers also face health hazards, including dysentery and tetanus. Hazardous materials crews hose down crew members and search dogs when they leave the site.
The tediousness of the search caused some bitterness, Richards said, especially after the fire department shut down all attempts at rescue the first day because of the slide zone’s instability. The family members’ anguish over the delay reminded Richards of one of the Bible’s most moving accounts of mourning, when Martha remonstrated over Jesus’ absence during her brother’s illness and death: “Martha, God bless that woman, she was point-blank with Jesus. Her brother Lazarus had died and Jesus took his own sweet time to get there.” But in Oso, rescue and recovery crews moved as quickly as they could, under the circumstances, Richards said. One rescuer sank more than 10 feet in the quicksand and would have died had it not been for his rope. “It’s kind of a walking on eggshells type of situation,” Richards said.
The church doesn’t have as much influence in the Pacific Northwest as it does in some other parts of the country, Richards acknowledged. But the small conservative Christian community especially “has taken the lead” in much of the hands-on support for victims and first responders.“And they’re God’s hands and feet in so many ways,” Richards said.
They can’t put 600 feet of mountain back in place. They can’t lift 60 feet of sludge off homes and bodies. But quoting from the Serenity Prayer, Richards told me that when you pray for the courage to change that which you can, God delivers. “He has delivered all kinds of folks, even those who may not yet know him,” Richards said. “Maybe they will get a sense of Him as a result of working side-by-side with folks.”