“We really felt a heaviness in the air. You could sense the spiritual darkness.”
Eric Hubbard is an officer with the Long Beach Police Department in California, about four-and-a-half hours from the site of Sunday’s massacre in Las Vegas. He was planning to be on vacation this week, but on Sunday night just before bed, he got a text about the shooting from his prayer chain at church. He was in Vegas within 24 hours, volunteering as a chaplain.
“When we got here, it was still pretty fresh,” Hubbard said. “There was a lot of people on the street just wandering around, just numb and trying to wrap their heads around what happened.”
Hubbard is one of three officers from the Los Angeles area serving as a Billy Graham Rapid Response Team (RRT) chaplain in Las Vegas. He knows some of the people who were attending Sunday’s country music festival when bullets started piercing the crowd. One of his friends from high school was killed in the gunfire.
“It’s rough,” he said about the emotional toll it’s taken on him. He’s been with the police department for 16 years, and tragedy never gets easy. It does, however, put him in a unique position to talk openly with other law enforcement officials.
Coping with Trauma
The same goes for Officer Scott Lasch, also with the Long Beach Police Department, and Officer Martin Garcia from the San Gabriel Police Department, both serving as RRT chaplains.
Hubbard doesn’t usually share that he’s a policeman when he’s deployed with RRT, he said, “because it’s irrelevant,” but in Las Vegas it’s different. There, when he, Lasch and Garcia share their job title, it gives them a way of relating to other officers.
“Police officers are very skeptical about outsiders because of the type of work,” said chaplain manager Jeff Naber, who spent 35 years in law enforcement. Officers tend to put up a wall, he said, and “when they suffer emotionally, that wall becomes higher and thicker.”
But when a Las Vegas officer finds out someone else is in the same line of work, Hubbard added, “the wall immediately comes down.”
Hubbard has talked to some police officers who were off duty but went into protective mode when rapid fire filled the air Sunday night.
One is a friend of his who was at the concert with his wife and daughter. Both the friend and his daughter are Long Beach police officers.
“As shots rang out, people were going down around them,” Hubbard said, retelling their story. The friend’s wife drove a couple of people to safety while the friend and his daughter stayed back to help.
Hubbard recalls getting a call from his wife just before he left to minister in Las Vegas.
“She just found out her friend was one of the shooting victims. She was shot in the stomach.”
Thankfully, the friend was OK, but the trauma of that night won’t be quick to fade for the scores of people who witnessed mass casualties.
A Gradual Openness to the Gospel
Officer Garcia got wind of the shooting through a news alert on his phone that night, but it wasn’t until the next morning that “I realized the magnitude of the incident,” he said.
He was recently in Texas serving as a chaplain in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, and said this time around, it’s a little harder to minister to people. One man he spoke to has a lot of wealth and influence and a good heart, Garcia said, but said he wasn’t ready to in his life.
Monday was the hardest day, Hubbard said, but by Tuesday, “people were much more open to speaking about spiritual matters.”
“This is probably one of the darkest places spiritually,” Naber said. “In Las Vegas, you see things on the street that wouldn’t be allowed anywhere else.”
Chaplains have had opportunities to talk and pray with people outside the Bellagio in the middle of the Las Vegas strip, where one of three memorials is set up to remember the victims. One night this week, chaplains were there as hundreds of people passed by going to and from the casinos.
“So many of them were stopping and looking at the memorial, and so many of them were willing to stop and have conversation,” Naber said.
Two other memorials are set up about a mile in each direction from the Bellagio, one of them at the scene of the shooting, where there’s a more somber mood.
“That’s where we’re concentrating most of our ministry,” Naber said. The chaplains’ Mobile Ministry Center is also set up there as a hub for prayer.
A Growing Fire
“The difference here is the level of tragedy,” he said. The massacre is now the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history. There has been a tremendous amount of media exposure and an overwhelming number of people affected. Normally Naber witnesses more localized trauma; this time, it’s widespread.
Wednesday, he visited local churches miles from the shooting where the emotional impact is high. He’s met tourists who were on vacation, trying to escape their lives back home “to live in a fantasy world with no inhibitions, and they’re confronted with the reality of life.”
On Monday, he met a manager at the hotel where he’s staying, and said the night before, “she had to go down the list of all the employees that work here and call them to find out what their status was. … She was thinking, ‘I know these people. Are they dead now?’”
In the midst of grief, anger and mortality emerges a chance to offer comfort, a listening ear and prayer wherever needed, he said.
He likened it to a spiritual fire.
“I feel like a match has been struck,” he reflected. “The RRT, I feel like we’re holding that match as it’s burning and we want to hand that match over to the local churches. I sense that this fire is going to grow because of this incident.”
After all, he added, “Light totally displaces darkness.”
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).