Pastor Chris Pritchett is in his seventh year as a volunteer firefighter. He now serves as a first responder in a number of capacities: as pastor, firefighter, and chaplain. COURTESY/Chris Pritchett
Pastors are often first responders in times of crisis. They are there during personal tragedies and community heartache. Pastor Chris Pritchett has allowed his role as a first responder to be defined in a new way.
As the lead pastor of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Bowman, GA, Pritchett responded to one such family tragedy about six years ago. One of his staff members lost his brother to suicide. Pritchett spent the entire following day with the family, which he said is unusual because he would usually spend one or two hours.
This time, however, was different. As he drove home that night, he felt the Lord calling him and convicting him. He pondered the scene the first responders – the EMTs and the firemen – must have encountered.
“It was like the Lord was saying to me, ‘You did a great job ministering to the family today, but who’s ministering to those firemen?’” Pritchett said.
Pritchett then realized that he has a fire department across from his own house. He’d been driving past a ministry opportunity even while doing ministry elsewhere. Pritchett took action that night by connecting with the fire station across the street.
“I called the chief, told him who I was, and wanted to know what it would take to be involved in the fire department, not really to be a fireman, but be involved and minister to firemen,” Pritchett explained.
The chief invited him to attend a New Fire Academy course. Pritchett thought he was going to simply be observing and meeting the firemen who worked at the station.
“Little did I know they were going to hand me an application,” Pritchett laughed. “Before I knew it, I was trying on boots. It just happened.”
Pritchett started working with the other firemen as a volunteer firefighter. He said this gave him credibility, because he wasn’t showing up to tell them a message and then leaving. He was working alongside them. Pritchett was now a first responder as both a pastor, firefighter, and chaplain for the station.
These interactions allowed him to hear some of the stories of heartache and hardship from the firemen. One such observation was that the firemen often grieved not knowing how families fared after a house fire. They also had concerns about responding to both the grieving families on the scene while simultaneously putting out the fire.
“Firemen started telling me when they left the scene of a fire, they had no more connection with the family,” Pritchett said. “Basically, Red Cross took it from there, and they went back to the fire station.”
Pritchett knew this was an opportunity to step into the gap and help the firemen. It was a new ministry opportunity. Enter the Hope Trailer.
Four years ago, Pleasant Grove purchased a covered trailer and stocked it with clothes ranging in sizes (baby to 4X), toiletries, and shoes. The church’s website touts the tagline “A Place of Hope.” With the covered trailer, the church is able to take hope to those in the midst of a tragic loss.
Pritchett said there is a team of church members who respond with the trailer when there is a house fire. Regardless of where the fire is – in the county or in one of the surrounding four – Pleasant Grove shows up alongside the fire department to serve the families in need.
The trailer allows the fire department to focus on containing and putting out the fire while the church team provides comfort and material items for the families. Pritchett said the church will also provide a night in a motel for the family.
After establishing the Hope Trailer, Pritchett said the church also built the Neighborhood of Hope, five houses ready to shelter families or individual after a house fire, tornado, other disasters, and domestic issues. The church team meets with the family and determines next steps and ongoing needs – this is where the family may be able to stay in the neighborhood.
Pritchett said the Neighborhood of Hope is meant to help people get back on their feet. To keep the family in a pattern of responsibility, there is a weekly fee and contract.
In the last four years, about 30-40 families have been helped by this ministry, which is know as HERT Ministries (Hope Emergency Response Team). As a result of working with the firemen directly, Pritchett said many have come to know the Lord and now serve as chaplains at other fire stations. He said at least nine firemen have been saved in his own fire station where he volunteers.
This ministry outreach is not isolated to Pleasant Grove. Instead, Pritchett said the church connected with Faith Baptist Church in Bowman two years ago to replicate the ministry. Pritchett said he reached out to Pastor Jamie Calloway. Faith Baptist picked up the ministry opportunity, purchased its own trailer, stocked it, and replicated the materials from Pleasant Grove.
Pritchett said he would like to see the ministry expand even further. He said the fire department he’s closest to – across the street from his home – has an opportunity for mutual aid, meaning that it responds across county lines. Similarly, he would like to see the Hope Trailer ministry replicated in all four of the counties the fire department services.
“Our goal is to put it in all four counties so that we can do a better job of ministering to families,” Pritchett said.
Pritchett had some advice for churches interested in adding this type of ministry to their outreach plans.
The first step is simply to get started, he said. He encouraged churches to be involved in the community. He emphasized that it takes time for firemen, or anyone, to trust someone new. Being active in the community gave Pleasant Grove an easy path toward making the Hope Trailer a reality.
Then, Pritchett said the churches should connect with the local fire chief. Explain what the church is about and ask what needs might be in the fire station or community. He recommended reaching out to any firemen or women who are part of the congregation, because they may be able to help make connections with the local fire stations.
Pritchett said it’s hard to know how many first responders or individuals have been touched by these ministries.
“I just think it’s countless,” Pritchett said. “We can only keep up with the families we take care of at the fires. I think it’s when you don’t care who gets the credit, God is going to allow you to do some things. That’s where we’ve been. We’ve said, ‘God, we just want to be open.’”