Oso slide chaplains: 'Life-changing for everybody'




Posted on April 25, 2014 at 7:37 PM

Updated Friday, Apr 25 at 10:53 PM

Immediately after the Oso landslide, the number of missing persons numbered nearly 200. Now the count is just two.

Officials have confirmed 41 fatalities in the weeks since the slide.

Almost every time crews made a positive identification, a special group of men and women mobilized to notify families.

"Even if you don't say a word, they say, 'I don't know how I would've made it without you there,'" said Chaplain Ralph Fry.

Fry assembled a team of nearly two dozen chaplains at Snohomish County’s request, realizing the region faced a long and deeply personal process of notification as families waited for news.

"Another human being, face to face, as much as possible so that there would be compassion," Fry said.

Chaplain Greg Kanehen served as the point of contact with the Medical Examiner’s Office.

"They would call me to notify me that we have a confirmation," Kanehen said.  "The deputy would then meet with the chaplain at a neutral location and together go to the spot [to meet the family]."

Chaplain Janine Brown with the King County Sheriff’s Office and Chaplain Jack Richards with Everett Police served as two of approximately 18 chaplains.

"We came alongside as a team,” Richards said. “There were no soloists in this."
For Brown, the experience has been quite different than past experiences of notification.

"It was not only something they were expecting but something they were hoping for," she said.

The chaplains all have full-time jobs and work with the Oso slide victims for free. They plan to continue working with those families indefinitely, as long as there is a need.

They’ve worked long hours, and for one of them the initial response to the slide was his first real day on the job.

"I'd just gotten home from the hospital with our first born daughter," Joel Johnson said.

Johnson had just finished chaplain training when he got a call from Fry about the landslide. He told his wife he’d be back in a few hours.

He returned 36 hours later.

Johnson worked on site with search and rescue crews, and learned a chaplain’s prayer isn’t always quiet and still.

"You get your hands dirty. You get up to your waste in muck. You grab a shovel," Johnson said. "A lot of people have asked me, 'How do you do it?' I honestly, say, 'It's not me.' I believe I'm being sustained by something far greater than myself."

It is that “something greater” the chaplains believe unites them and unites the families they serve.

"I talked to a lady the other day who said, 'I'm so angry with God. I tell Him every day.' And I said, 'He can handle it,'" Fry said.

The chaplains don’t claim to have all the answers. In fact, they continue to learn.

"To grab life every moment and never waste a day," Brown said.

Johnson learned chaplaincy isn’t really about answers, but more a lesson in presence. After weeks of walking together in mud, Oso Fire asked Johnson to be their first official chaplain.

"This is life-changing for everybody,” Fry said. "A generation or more will reflect on what happened that day."