We are better equipped to go through trying times than we think, says Norris Burkes, who will visit the Elmira area Sept. 9 to 15 for a series of appearances to share his experiences as a minister and hospital and military chaplain.
Tragedy led Burkes, 50, a Southern Baptist minister from Elk Grove, Calif., to become a chaplain. On Jan. 17, 1989, in what Burkes said was one of the first mass school shootings, Patrick Edward Purdy killed five students and wounded 30 others at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, Calif.
“I identified myself as a local pastor willing to help. They put me in a room where I basically did death notification (to the families),” Burkes said.
He said he was among a few pastors who met with parents in a room to inform them, in a sensitive manner, that their children had been murdered.
“The most difficult thing was talking to a Cambodian mother who didn’t speak any English. I put my finger on the name (on the list of victims) and just shook my head,” Burkes said.
“That pulled me into the chaplaincy. I wanted to do work with people,” said Burkes, a California Air National Guard chaplain who wrote a book in 2006, “No Small Miracles,” based on his experiences as a hospital pediatric ward chaplain.
“I think we are a lot more equipped to go through these difficulties than we imagine,” Burkes said. “Those people who sort of trust the process understand that tragedy is a natural thing that happens to us and we will get through it one day at a time.”
Burkes, whose column “Spirituality” is published in the Star-Gazette every Saturday, expressed his admiration for nurses and staff in a hospital oncology ward who watch some children die and others go home. The way many get through it, he said, is with the attitude that if they didn’t do it, who would?
With that mindset, Burkes volunteered for deployment in January to Baghdad, Iraq, where he said he will work as a military chaplain in what he called “the busiest emergency room in the world.”
“I’m really going to have to face some of those same demons I faced in Stockton,” he said.