Emergency Services: From Soccer to SARZCO
by Major Ray Brown
The past three months have been a roller-coaster ride of activity and emotion as I left my appointment as corps officer of Nottingham William Booth Memorial Halls, United Kingdom, and flew to South Asia to be Zonal Coordinator of the South Asia Relief Coordination Office (SARZCO). My role was to represent the International Secretary for South Asia (Commissioner Lalkiamlova) with regard to emergency and relief work in The Salvation Army’s four tsunami-affected Indian territories and Sri Lanka.
|Tents set up on the hills around Port Blair, Andaman, which was devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami|
|Major Ray Brown (left) with Major Cedric Hills in Albania, 1999|
|Tents set up beside a home ruined by the tsunami|
|Belongings on the roof of a now-uninhabitable home show how the devastation hit this village in India|
|In many areas streets are lined with tents as people camp next to their destroyed houses, waiting for the opportunity to rebuild them|
|This family from Port Blair, Andaman, lost all its possessions in the tsunami disaster|
Prior to departure there was the task of quickly extricating myself from my ‘normal’ role. For the second winter in a row my wife, Pat, in her unruffled way, accepted the sudden expansion of work as she moved from our usual 50/50 ministry arrangement to taking sole responsibility.
There was the task of gathering together clothes, medicines, documentation and extra kit for the stay.
The local officers of the corps – the Army’s equivalent of church elders – also moved into gear, once again pledging to assist with extra pastoral responsibility in my absence, and also taking the time to plan a surprise public prayer farewell at the conclusion of the meeting prior to my deployment. Texts and emails from my two daughters currently studying medicine and nursing at University in Edinburgh were their modern way of supporting and saying goodbye.
It’s funny to think that I sort of stumbled into International Emergency Disaster work by accident.
In 1999, as divisional director for field programme in East Scotland, I was concerned that I was failing, in terms of my job description, to support Captain Cedric Hills (now Major Cedric Hills, the International Emergency Services Coordinator) who, with his wife Lyn, was the corps officer at Falkirk.
The main reason for my inability to support Cedric was that he was often absent from his appointment, being deployed to provide emergency services in trouble spots around the world.
On one of his rare visits back to Scotland, I asked Cedric how I might best support him when he was away. I am not entirely sure what I expected in reply to my enquiry – fund-raising or prayer requests perhaps – but I certainly didn’t expect Cedric to ask me to email him the soccer results each Saturday night! These were the days when access to the Internet was not so easy.
So every weekend when Cedric was away from the UK I would faithfully record and send him the football results, plus a quick round-up of local and international news. In return, Cedric would copy me his weekly progress report to International Headquarters (IHQ) from wherever he happened to be in the world. His reports became an excellent prayer focus.
It was in such a report to IHQ from Albania in 1999 that Cedric indicated that the team needed strengthening. Not for one moment thinking the offer would be acted upon, I mentioned in my next football-based report that if another pair of hands was required I would be willing to help.
Within days I received an early morning phone call from IHQ. Could I come for an interview to see if I might be suited for emergency work, I was asked – and could I come tomorrow? By Friday of the same week I was in Rome, Italy, nervously waiting to board the Albanian Airlines flight to the Albanian capital Tirana to assist with the feeding programme for refugees who had fled the war in nearby Kosovo.
This was the start of an association with Salvation Army International Emergency Services that later resulted in service in Iraq and most recently my deployment in South Asia.
Deployments are very well planned and thought out. Over the years I have benefited from a number of pre-deployment training opportunities arranged by IHQ.
The International Emergency Services office also ensures that those deployed are briefed as well as possible for the task in hand.
I have been to a vast array of locations – the mountain passes of Albania, the devastation of war-torn Kosovo, the opulence of Kuwait, the marshes of Iraq, a ‘Lawrence of Arabia’-type fortress on the Iranian boarder, the sun-kissed beaches of Sri Lanka, the temples of India and the dusty and neglected streets and buildings of Chennai/Madras.
There have been some unforgettable moments, including the time I received a phone call at 11.30 pm during my stay on the Andaman Islands, off the Indian coast, saying, ‘Please vacate your hotel room as an earthquake has hit Indonesia and there might well be another tsunami coming your way.’ Happily, this time the tsunami didn’t arrive.
The tasks I have undertaken over the years have also been challenging, not least my most recent role as Zonal Coordinator of SARZCO, involving much travel, communication and considerable demands in terms of securing of information and making decisions.
But, looking back, it is always the people who stand out.
In the case of India and Sri Lanka I remember the graciousness of the territorial commanders and their in-country staff as, along with the international personnel, they carefully worked out strategies how best to assist those in need. Each territory had responded instantly and had relief assistance in place before international staff arrived on the scene to supplement this work.
I remember those who have become local staff on the projects. It’s surely no coincidence that, shortly after arrival on deployments, the Lord always provides that special person or people who are willing to give of themselves to help the mission of The Salvation Army.
International personnel will no doubt remember some of these literal ‘Godsends’ such as Ben the local taxi driver from Albania, Nehat of Kosovo, Muntajab and his team in Iraq, and more currently Major Gera Thomas, of the India Central Territory, assigned to SARZCO in India. All these good people are extremely willing and interested to give sacrificially of themselves – travelling with, translating for, and organising and running any kind of errand with huge energy and enthusiasm for our international teams.
I also remember working with international team members. Great people such as Brian Oxley, the unofficial elder statesman of International Emergency Services, whose Christian experience, wisdom and knowledge of life shines through all his dealings with people.
It is however the beneficiaries, the so-called survivors, who are what deployments are all about. In common with all those involved in emergency and relief work, helping people is my key motivation.
I have seen and witnessed the aftermath of war and natural disaster without being overly emotional or psychologically scarred. But the plight of some people you meet just sticks in your mind, and remains as a reminder of why you agreed to stay involved in emergency work. Such a family is pictured on the opposite page.
It’s not the greatest photograph ever taken. To be honest I am reluctant to take pictures of people in need and always try to ask permission first. I have missed the top half of the young man’s head, but that doesn’t really matter because it is the eyes of this little family in tsunami-hit Port Blair, on the Andaman Islands, that are a typical reminder of what international deployment is all about.
Standing in the rubble of her house, with a miserly amount of salvaged possessions, the mother of this family in Andaman told me, through a translator, of the fear and horror she experienced on 26 December when the waves of the tsunami ripped through her little brick house on the seafront six times, completely submerging it. The manner of the survival of her and her two children was miraculous to say the least. But the eyes say it all.
A repaired house, new household goods, supplementary feeding and counselling will only go part of the way to restoring this woman and her family to some semblance of their former existence prior to the disaster. Her story can be repeated by others caught up in similar situations.
Emergency relief work can only go so far and The Salvation Army is following through with good ongoing plans for development projects.
The challenge of helping people back to pre-disaster levels is immense. I recognise that in India and Sri Lanka my three months’ deployment has only assisted in laying down some foundation stones. Local and national politics, problems of logistics and management challenges all present obstacles to be surmounted in future days but The Salvation Army is giving of its best and working with others to address the vast problems in the aftermath of this huge natural disaster.
I am reminded of the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:6 – ‘I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow’ (New International Version). For me, these words are what being a Christian and a Salvation Army officer are about. The problems faced by those caught up in disaster are far larger than any one person can solve, but with God’s help much can be achieved.
Major Ray Brown is, with his wife, in charge of The Salvation Army’s Nottingham William Booth Memorial Halls Corps in the United Kingdom