British high street banker brings comfort in Berlin

Visitors to the Christmas Market in Berlin stop at a shrine for the 12 who died in the  terrorist attack
Visitors to the Christmas Market in Berlin stop at a shrine for the 12 who died in the terrorist attack

After he retired from branch banking at the age of 53, Douglas Barr-Hamilton discovered a new gift. It was to bring the presence of God to people in crisis in foreign lands.

Douglas was part of the Rapid Response Team deployed to Berlin after the tragedy on 19 December. A lone Islamic terrorist had hijacked a lorry and killed the driver before driving the vehicle into a Christmas market next to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The attack killed 12 people and injured over 30 others.

By 26 December Douglas was in Berlin, and writing home about visitors to the market: “A few stop at the shrines, while the regular stallholders seem still to be in a state of shock and denial. Nevertheless the witness is worthwhile, and the ‘ministry of presence’ could develop into something deeper.”

It had all begun for Douglas at the London Olympics in 2012, when he volunteered to be part of the More than Gold team. He worked as a Games Pastor at King’s Cross, Euston and St Pancras stations, speaking to people who had come to the watch the sports.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association contacted him not long after, and invited him to take part in a Sharing Hope in Crisis Seminar at Clerkenwell in central London. This course equipped him to be a chaplain in the Rapid Response Team.

After retirement Douglas had sensed that God had work for him to do in France, so he took a degree in French which included a year working at the CLC bookshop in Paris. He was ideally positioned to respond in 2015 when terrorist attacks killed 130 people in Paris.

“The Rapid Response Team fitted in very well with the Parisian churches,” comments Douglas. “We almost always went about with a local Christian, and we found that people in Paris were more open to the Gospel after the attack.”

The chaplains, easily identifiable by their red jackets, went out in shifts. “It was very well organised,” he said. “Two groups would go out and another would stay in the hotel praying for them. We had a mini Sharing Hope in Crisis course at the start of each shift and debriefed at the end.”

rrtbrussels2 - Copy - CopyIn March 2016 he deployed again, this time following the terrorist bombings in Brussels. “We were very aware of the spiritual battle in Brussels,” he said. “We spent much of our time praying. Young Muslim men were watching us throughout, and we had to be careful. We didn’t tell anyone where we were staying but we went to the central shrine at every opportunity.”

In September Douglas attended a three-day Critical Incident Stress Management Training course organised by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Ware. It was another step on in his development as a chaplain, and he found what he learned there invaluable.

Following the Christmas attack in Berlin, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association called on Douglas to travel a third time. As he predicted, the ‘ministry of presence’ did indeed develop into something deeper.

Berlin was cold, and the chaplains were again wearing red anoraks over their branded blue T-shirts. They introduced themselves to the stallholders, most of whom were badly traumatised and did not want to talk. However, one named Ali was more open.

Ali had grown up in Morocco and was now living in France. He engaged in a conversation with a chaplain, which eventually led to God and to the purpose of Jesus coming to earth. As the chaplain explained the Gospel message, Ali became emotional and realised he needed eternal life through Jesus. They prayed together, and the chaplain returned with the team soon after to present him with a Bible. Thirty minutes later Ali was still reading it.

IMG_1237“The Christmas market was not what I expected,” said Douglas. “Most people were from outside Berlin, many from overseas. Local people were coming in little groups to visit the shrines, so it was hard to engage. Even so, each of us managed to talk to a dozen people every day. I was encouraged by the response of a stallholder called Omar, who worked alongside Ali. He was hostile at the beginning, but became friendly by the end.”

A pastor from Berlin came out to join the chaplains for one day, and offered to welcome any new followers of Jesus to his church. “It encouraged local Christians to have us there,” said Douglas.

So would he encourage other people to become Rapid Response Chaplains? “It’s certainly rewarding and spiritually strengthening,” he said. “You make new Christian friends, and you gain more than you give. People with a language skill are really needed. We lacked German speakers in Berlin, although we did get by there in English.”

If you are interested in joining the Rapid Response Team, you can apply here. The next Sharing Hope in Crisis Seminar is in Doncaster on 25 February.

Names of stallholders have been changed.