Lighting a Different Fire

IRM brings gospel, counseling to emergency responders

December 29, 2001: The Mesa Redonda shopping district in the center of Lima, Peru, was packed with people.

Vendors lined the pathways with every kind of merchandise imaginable. Crowds of shoppers, mostly poor, made navigating the streets a challenge. Then, chaos.

It took one firework and just minutes to turn Mesa Redonda into an inferno. Shoppers and salespeople were trapped in the horrific fire, and firefighters from every station in the greater Lima area rushed to the disaster.

Sharon Garcia, a volunteer firefighter, worked tirelessly alongside her colleagues for seven hours. “There were fireworks still exploding at our feet as we were walking to the heart of the fire,” she says, remembering the first couple of hours. “I saw eight to ten bodies lying on the floor… and although it was shocking to see that, I was still concentrated on my job.”

In the end, the dead numbered almost 300. But witnessing the destruction and loss of life devastated survivors, too.

What about the aftermath?

Mark Allen, founder of the International Relief Mission (IRM), remembers when Sharon (now fire captain at the fire station in Miraflores, Peru) shared her memories of that day with him.

“As she remembered it, you could see how it affected her. You could see the post-traumatic stress coming back [even in 2010, nine years later],” Mark recalls.

In Peru, the disorder we know in the United States as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) doesn’t have a name – it isn’t recognized. Following traumatic and stressful events, emergency responders receive no counseling or help in dealing with the anxiety and stress that follows.

For weeks after the fire, Sharon couldn’t get a good night’s sleep.

“After that fire, I realized how easy life can be taken from you in a second, and I felt lonely thinking that no one could understand what I was feeling,” Sharon says.

After working for 30 years as a paramedic in Minnesota, Mark knows firsthand the effects of PTSD on the men and women who regularly witness gruesome scenes and often expose themselves to danger on the job. Firefighters and emergency responders need a lot of support, but they often have nowhere to turn.

“You’re used to being ‘in control’ all the time. It’s expected by the public,” he says. “A lot turn to alcohol, and domestic violence is very common in the homes of firefighters.”

A gospel approach

Mark (with his wife, Chris) founded IRM in 2007 to meet the emotional, spiritual and physical needs of a group largely unreached by the gospel – emergency service personnel around the world. Former EFCA ReachGlobal missionaries, Mark and Chris now partner with ReachGlobal/TouchGlobal in Peru and Honduras.

Since 2009, Mark and Chris have made several trips to both locations. A main goal of the IRM ministry is to establish chaplaincy programs to reach out to the firefighters.

Chaplains will be part of a partnering local evangelical church and trained in helping firefighters cope with the stresses of their work. They will provide spiritual guidance, basic marriage and family counseling, and tools for managing stress.

Mark and Chris see fire stations as a critical mission field. In Peru, firefighter ranks as one of the most respected jobs – and it is a volunteer position.

“Everyone trusts a firefighter,” Mark says. “They listen to what firefighters tell them.”

Mark and Chris must first build relationships and grow trust with the firefighters — especially the fire chiefs, who can say yes or no to the chaplaincy program. With his background, though, Mark feels that he can bond with them over shared experiences and gain credibility with the emergency responders.

“They are emergency personnel that know exactly what we feel,” Sharon says. “We’re comfortable speaking with Mark as we recognize him as one of us.”

In addition to building the chaplaincy ministry, IRM is helping provide some much-needed equipment for the under-resourced fire stations in Peru and Honduras.

“We like to bring a few things, like automatic defibrillators, when we have the opportunity,” Mark says. “We’ve even recently been able to secure an ambulance for the San Martin de Porres station [in Peru].”

When Mark and Chris return to Peru this summer, they will spend part of their time assisting TouchGlobal in the rebuilding of homes lost in the 2007 earthquake in Chincha. They also will continue to build on relationships established during previous visits, form new partnerships and chaplaincy programs, and deliver much-needed training to the chaplains and emergency responders.

In addition, Chris is developing a Community Health Program focusing on hygiene and basic preventative health care which they hope to implement sometime this summer, too.

All of it points back to the same desire, though – to see the gospel of Jesus Christ work in the lives of emergency response personnel like Sharon, giving them the freedom and peace that only comes from Him.

 * * * * *

CONNECT
SERVE

Find out how you can help rebuild the Chincha, Peru, fire station which was destroyed in the 2007 earthquakes.

PRAY
  • For continued growth in relationships between IRM and the fire chiefs and other emergency response personnel in Peru and Honduras.
  • That the emergency reponders in Peru and Honduras would not only receive needed counseling for post-traumatic stress, but that they would come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.
GIVE

Make an online donation to support IRM.

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On an unexpected journey with the One who gave me unfathomable grace, I'm just trying to follow Jesus and love Him and others a little better each day.

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