“Are you available to deploy to Newtown?” The call from a chaplain colleague jolted me into sharp consciousness. Barely a week earlier, this colleague and I had ridden the train back from New York together, part of a newly-minted Disaster Chaplaincy Team, trained and certified by the National Disaster Interfaith Network (NDIN).
“Huh?” I said in confusion. At that moment I did not know how to respond. My mind went into a tailspin while processing what to think or how to feel. That day I had visited Chapel Street Elementary School in Stratford, Connecticut, where my children were attending school. Curiously, I had received an odd instant message that morning, asking me if my children were safe and informing me that Connecticut schools were on lockdown. Earlier I had been happily watching my son take a spelling test, so I gave a polite, affirmative response, not knowing what had taken place in Newtown, or what the instant message was all about.
Finally it hit home. There had been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and children were dead! I was numb. This was unfathomable. Next, inevitably, my mind leaped to fearful, personal speculations: What if this had happened, not at Sandy Hook, but at Chapel Street? What if Newtown had been Stratford? What if I had been present? What if my children were involved and were among the dead? What if…what if?
“Are you available to deploy to Newtown?” The question, still distant, stirred in me self-doubt and uncomfortable feelings: I was not a disaster chaplain. I was a parent, a human being. My mind flashed back to the recent training. It was intense and I had been exhausted. Still fresh in my mind, my expectations about disaster chaplaincy revolved around the disasters we learned about in the training.
In the training we talked about a litany of disasters, including hurricanes with names like Sandy, Irene and Isaac, and anonymous tornadoes. Fellow imams and chaplains from California spoke about spooky earthquakes and brush fires. One mental health practitioner from the Washington D.C area described hostage situations. We covered highly publicized human disasters, like Oklahoma City, September 11, and multiple plane crashes and school shootings…School shootings! ? Yes, we had talked about those too, I suddenly remembered. Virginia Tech was mentioned but no one had mentioned anything about elementary school disasters!
I was still stunned. I had never imagined that I would be deployed so soon after training, and certainly not to an elementary school shooting. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be called to an upscale, suburban town in Connecticut where a gunman had run amok and killed young school children. Instead, I imagined a disaster scenario far from home, perhaps reached by plane where I would report to a central command center. Newtown and an elementary school were too close to home. This scenario did not follow the script of my imagination.
“Are you available to deploy to Newton?” I was unsure if she had repeated the question or if the chaplain’s voice had echoed in my head. Thankfully, I came back to reality. The reality was that a tragedy had taken place and I had special training to be of service. I knew that tragedies strike people regardless of their faiths or beliefs, and that this tragedy, like every tragedy, impacts not only the victims and survivors, but all of humanity as well. My response, in accordance with the teachings of the sacred texts of my faith tradition, would be a response as a member of the human family . Along with my duty to respond by virtue of my calling as a community chaplain and my training as a disaster chaplain, I would also bring a broken heart full of prayers for the families and community affected by this terrible event, and for our nation and the world.
I braced myself for the call that would come next: the call from the Disaster Assistant Response Team (DART), a newly established team within the Islamic Relief Agency of America. As a member of the DART team, I would join responders from other voluntary organizations active in disaster relief, such as the American Red Cross and the Association of Religious Communities. Yet one question still occupied my mind as I waited: Why?
I did not find the answer as I reflected on this difficult question but I did find renewed hope and contentment in my belief that although I may not have the answer, God knows best. And God, with His infinite knowledge, knows the potential of humanity. This inspiring potential shows itself when we set aside the things that separate us—our differences and discrimination, our fear and favor, status and stigma, anxiety and anger, despair and hatred, arrogance and ignorance. When we come together as we do in disaster chaplaincy, to support one another and share our collective grief, prayers and humanity, this drives me and gives me hope. Our collective and positive human potential helps me understand why God created us and placed us on this earth. This and the mercy of God are what enabled me to overcome my shock and respond to the call.
“Yes,” I responded. “I’m only about 20 minutes away from Newtown. I can be there as soon as needed.”
– Chaplain AbdulMalik Negedu