It would seem natural to call Richard Yeomans the “pastor of disaster.”
Yeomans is the president of Emergency Ministry Services, a group that trains disaster response teams operating out of churches across Southern California. Since founding the organization in 2007, the San Juan Capistrano resident has deployed to 41 natural and man-made disasters around the globe.
“We take on just about any task you can imagine to help people in their time of need,” Yeomans, 65, told The Epoch Times. “It’s important, when you deal with tragedy, to be a good listener and let people share their feelings [and] share their grief.”
When more than 300,000 people perished after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Yeomans helped shepherd 80 orphans to the United States for adoption; after a Category 4 tornado devastated Cookeville, Tennessee, in 2020, he and his team helped families recover valuables from the wreckage of their former homes; and earlier this year, in the wake of a mass shooting that left 10 dead in Boulder, Colorado, he was on the scene to comfort the traumatized.
“When you’re preparing yourself to go into another such environment … there’s a little bit of hesitancy,” he said. “But, at the same time, [there’s] almost—I don’t want to say a sense of excitement, but there’s something very special about these kinds of environments. The best in people comes out.”
In response to The Epoch Times’ call for readers to highlight everyday acts of kindness in their communities, Birgit Klause nominated Yeomans, who attends the same church as her family.
“He is a great example of being ‘Jesus in skin’ to so many,” Klause told The Epoch Times via email. He “always has a smile on his face and is certainly a local hero to our family.”
Before and After 9/11
Yeomans is originally from Long Island, New York. His grandfather was a fire chief, and his stepfather was a police officer and Korean War veteran. Their trauma left a deep and lasting impression on him.
“The main reason I became a police chaplain was because I saw my father and my grandfather go through trauma in [their] jobs,” Yeomans said. “As an adult, I could look back and say, ‘Oh, that’s what was going on in their lives. That’s why they locked themselves in the bedroom and drank themselves to sleep that night. That’s why there was anger in our home.’”
He’s been in ministry since 1977, when he began working as a youth pastor in San Clemente. But it was the national tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001, that changed the trajectory of his life’s mission.
He was working as a patrol chaplain at the time. About a month after the terrorist attack, a team of Christian police officers and chaplains from the area invited him to join them on a trip to New York City to minister to first responders.
When they arrived in New York, the rubble of the Twin Towers was still burning, Yeomans recalled.
“It was surreal. The scope of a disaster like that … It was really hard for you to wrap your mind around something that huge.”
One evening, Yeomans shared his testimony with several hundred law enforcement officers gathered beneath a tent. He spoke to the grief-stricken first responders about how to find peace and make sense of such a terrible event, sharing his own experiences with death, suffering, and sadness that he had encountered as a patrol chaplain.
Afterward, an officer approached Yeomans.
“The words that you shared tonight really ministered to these men and women, and I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for being here and sharing your story,” the officer said.
Then the officer pressed his personal New York Police Department (NYPD) detective pin—the one he wore on his formal, full dress uniform—into the palm of Yeomans’s hand.
“I cherish that very much today,” he said. “I actually keep that pin on my uniform. It says ‘NYPD Detective’ on it—with their seal.”
From then on, his calling was confirmed: He never wanted to see anyone else suffer from the trauma that he saw his family or 9/11 first responders go through.
“When you experience trauma in your own life, I think that God gives you an empathy for other people who maybe are experiencing something similar to what you personally have experienced. I felt like God was saying, ‘I’ve equipped you even before you knew it, as a young person,’” he said.
When it came time to write his master’s degree thesis, he studied the effectiveness of chaplains at Ground Zero following the terrorist attacks.
“I’ve put a lot of energy and time in trying to both understand and then offering help to people who have experienced a traumatic event in their life. You know that old saying: it takes one to know one.”
Physical Needs First
Since 2007, Yeomans has traveled to wherever calamity strikes, often bewildering the recipients of his benevolence.
In 2013, the pastor took his team to Jamaica Beach, Texas, where they learned that the city hall, police department, and fire department were flooded with about 4 inches of mud and sewage.
“We’d be willing to clean up in here if you would allow us to,” Yeomans told the mayor.
“We can’t even get our folks to come in here and do that,” the mayor replied. “I can’t believe you guys would be willing to take on such a nasty job.”
Yeomans and his team—clad in biohazard suits and respirators—spent the following three days shoveling out the muck.
“The city officials were just kind of blown away that we’re willing to do something like that,” he said. “Our answer was, ‘We came here to serve in Christ’s name.’”
When responding to disasters, the first step of Yeomans’s strategy is taking care of physical needs first—“and there are a lot of those,” he said.
Usually, that simply means setting up a portable kitchen, making bean and cheese burritos, and serving them with iced energy water to police officers around the perimeter of a disaster area.
“Ninety percent of the time, those camps haven’t had anything hot to eat,” Yeomans said. “Often, the police officers will say, ‘Hey, there’s a family down the end of the street that could really use some help.’ And, in essence, it’s almost like they give you the key to their city.”
Once the team encounters people in need, they might offer to board up shattered windows or forage through the wreckage for valuables. But sometimes, the biggest help they can offer is simply listening.
“[It’s important] because people are trying to make sense of the whys,” Yeomans said. “You know, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ Struggles of blaming themselves, blaming God. … They’re in a state of shock. And it’s very important to let people just vent and express all those different things that they’re experiencing.”
However, as Yeomans has seen firsthand, people who experience disaster and loss are “extremely resilient.”
“After they lick their wounds, they get on with life. Most people bounce back from things that even surprised themselves. They’re not so egocentric, but they become ‘other-centered.’ … You see the best in people in the worst of situations. It’s a beautiful thing. It really, really is,” he said.
“The more intense [your] experience is, the greater your effectiveness is to help another human being. Simple things, like just saying, ‘I’m praying for you’ or ‘How can I help you?’ That’s something that any one of us could do.”
He added, “It’s highly effective to just be there for somebody when they’re in need.”