Three members of the National Response Team (NRT) of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance arrived in Tucson, Ariz., within 48 hours of the Jan. 8 shootings there that killed six and injured 13, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

PDA’s NRT trio was the only national religious community responder to serve in Tucson in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.

“We can be grateful to a denomination with the vision to equip, train and deploy faith leaders into arenas of human-caused violence,” said the Rev. Laurie Kraus, pastor of Riviera Presbyterian Church in Miami, Fla. Kraus has served on PDA’s NRT since its inception in 1996.

She was joined in Tucson by fellow NRT members Rick Turner, a member of John Knox Presbyterian Church in Greenville, S.C., and the Rev. David Holyan, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Kirkwood, Mo. — who at the invitation of Presbytery de Cristo began immediately to offer support and encouragement to pastors, congregations and the presbytery as they responded to the crisis.

Headshot of Rick Turner

Rick Turner

Turner, Kraus and Holyan — all volunteers — represented the “first response” by PDA to de Cristo’s appeal for help, said the Rev. John Robinson, PDA’s associate for U.S. disaster response.

“Typically more members of our team, including mental health professionals with trauma recovery training, will make more trips to Tucson over the next months, or perhaps years as the congregations and community move through their own recovery,” Robinson wrote in a letter to Linda Valentine, executive director of the General Assembly Mission Council.

“Our team is often asked to provide ‘Compassion Fatigue and Care for the Caregiver trainings’ as well as consultation on what to expect as the churches and community absorb the impact of these events,” he stated.

And as is often the case, the rewards of PDA’s efforts flow back and forth between the helpers and those being helped.

“On Sunday morning (Jan. 9) as I listened to sermons by colleagues in Tucson reflecting on the aftermath of the tragedy and the commemorations of MLK 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,” Kraus wrote to Valentine. 

“It is one thing to lead as one has been trained in the ordinary seasons of a congregation’s life,” she continued. “It is another to step into the disorientation of sorrow, anger, confusion and need that inevitably follows in the wake of human caused disasters — feelings that faith leaders share, and that are magnified by their willingness to listen, care for and respond to their people and their community.” 

In a “minute for mission” she offered at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson that morning, Kraus said that PDA’s first intention in responding to such disasters is to refresh and reinforce the power of love and presence that pastors and congregations spend so generously for their community’s healing.  

“I told them that all Presbyterians were touched, as well, and sending their power of prayer and presence through the NRT and by their participation in the One Great Hour of Sharing offering to support the healing work being offered through the Presbyterian and interfaith community in Tucson,” Krause said. 

Headshot of David Holyan

David Holyan

As pastor of First-Kirkwood, Holyan has experienced first-hand the devastation caused by mass violence. On Feb. 7, 2008, a gunman killed five people — including the congregation’s director of lay ministries — at a Kirkwood city council meeting.

“On Feb. 8, 2008 a pastor from Florida, a member of PDA’s National Response Team, sat with me in my office, offering me, the staff, the congregation and our community hope in the midst of our chaos,” Holyan recounted. “… I don’t remember much of what was said that difficult weekend, but his presence was for me and many others a visible witness to the love of God in Christ ‘in a blue shirt,’” he said.

Now, Holyan continued, “as a member of PDA’s NRT I find myself sitting with those whose lives have been devastated by human-caused disasters. I’m the one in the blue shirt inscribed with the words ‘Out of Chaos, Hope’ (the PDA motto). By the grace of God, the heartache and horror has been transformed into wisdom and compassion and the willingness to serve others who find themselves in unimaginable situations.”

He says that his involvement with PDA “continues to be a work of redemption — for me and the congregation I serve. It is a sacred privilege to come alongside others in their moment of need and remind them of God’s love for us all in Christ as a member of PDA’s NRT.”

Redemption is certainly what those in Presbytery de Cristo experienced, according to Presbytery Pastor/Stated Clerk the Rev. Sue Westfall, who wrote to Robinson thanking PDA “for the extraordinary assistance, wisdom, experience and expertise that Rick, Laurie and David provided this community in the aftermath of Tucson’s tragedy.”

Noting that one of Tucson’s PC(USA) congregations suffered a fatality and an injury in the shootings, Westfall said the NRT “immediately began providing counseling, consultation and support not only to our Presbyterian community but also to the wider ecumenical/interfaith [community] as we came together to coordinate efforts to respond.”  

Westfall added that “the American Red Cross even pulled them in to help with trauma counseling and support as the memorials and funerals were held throughout the week. In short, they ministered to the Presbyterian community and the whole Tucson community in a very significant, capable, and visible way.”

“On Feb. 8, 2008 I became aware of what it means to be Presbyterian and why I am so proud of our denomination,” Holyan said. “We are connected and we care when it matters most. Last week, it was a privilege to offer, along with Laurie Kraus and Rick Turner, the connection to and the care of the people of God to those reeling in the aftermath of the shooting in Tucson. Thank you all for the privilege of serving on PDA’s National Response Team.”

PDA is always looking for new NRT members, Robinson said.

“We are particularly looking for additional racial/ethnic members in order to bring greater diversity to the team and strengthen our ability to response in a variety of communities,” he told Presbyterian News Service.

The process starts with self-nomination — the application is on the PDA Web site. When PDA has enough applicants, PDA sponsors a discernment weekend, in which applicants, NRT members and staff together determine whether a certain call to serve exists.

“We have found this to be a very helpful process,” Robinson said.

NRT members take a week of training of their choosing each year in disaster response, crisis response or spiritual care.  They also commit to a one-week annual meeting and two weeks of field service annually, though Robinson noted many give more than two weeks of service each year as responses are needed. 

NRT members also provide training in their own presbyteries, serve their local and state volunteer disaster response organizations, assist presbyteries and congregations in developing disaster plans and speak on behalf of the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering. 

More about the Tucson NRT members: 

  • Rick Turner, a long-time National Response Team member, has represented PDA with FEMA and several other national volunteer organizations active in disaster response ministry. A retired businessman who also served as a South Carolina Park Ranger, Turner brings financial and business skills to his NRT work as well as familiarity with federal government policies and procedures.  
  • The Rev. Laurie Krause was pastor at Riviera Church when Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida in 1992. She is a part-time seminary professor in Miami, and has been PDA’s principle theological interpreter for National Response Team annual meetings. 
  • The Rev. David Holyan joined the National Response Team last year, shortly after dealing with the Kirkwood shootings and experiencing first-hand the ministry of NRT in the midst of that tragedy.