Emergency response chaplain network born out of pledge following life-saving knock on door

Celebrating the graduation of eight new COBI chaplains in Gqeberha (PE) are, from the left, Jimmy Davis., Jan Wilken, Berni Wilken, Prof Willie du Toit (founder and CEO of COBI), Sherry-Lee Booyens, Annemarie van Zyl, Frank Ownhouse, Craig Richardson (national operations manager and trainer), Richard Nell and Pierre Roux

South Africa’s emergency-response Chaplain on Board Initiative (COBI) owes its birth to a pledge he made in the 1990s after somebody knocked on his door and stopped him from committing suicide, said the ministry founder and CEO, Professor Willie du Toit.

Speaking at the recent commissioning of eight COBI chaplains in Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth), he said: “The Eastern Cape can now expect to hear the sound of knocking on the doors of those who no longer know which way to turn during times of despair.” 

Du Toit said that when he was rescued from taking his life through the intervention of an ordinary citizen he was a law enforcement officer who frequently had to deal with major traumatic incidents without any support system. 

“I made a pledge to build such a system all over South Africa when I was able to. And now I raise spiritual caregivers to knock on the doors of those facing despair,” he said.

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COBI, which was established in 2012 and is headquartered in Benoni, is currently on a drive to train people across SA to serve as emotional first responders to anybody facing traumatic situations. Partnering with SAPS and emergency services COBI volunteer chaplains are on standby 24/7 to serve people traumatised as a result of murder, suicide, hijacking, armed robbery, accidents and other devastating events. 

Craig Richardson, the full-time national operations manager of COBI, who together with Du Toit, spearheads chaplain training, said they have chaplains in various cities and where they don’t have chaplains he is able to get the right help for people in distress through their network partners.

He told Gateway News the reason he got involved in the ministry is “because I’ve been there”.

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“I tried to commit suicide a couple of times and at some point, when I hit rock bottom, I needed somebody just to be there to listen to me — not judge me — and pick me up and put me together emotionally.”

“It’s not a job, it’s a calling,” he said of the work of a COBI chaplain.

He said at the end of this month they will be training new chaplains in Cape Town. Their reach also extends beyond South Africa. Through Du Toit’s international evangelism work he has trained COBI chaplains in Russia and England. Richardson said they are also planning to follow up requests for chaplain training from various African countries.

Speaking about the duties of a COBI chaplain, he said: “I was called out to a suicide on Sunday night. It was an elderly couple. They were in their eighties and their son committed suicide and they found the body. You don’t have the words to say to the people. Chaplaincy is a ministry of presence. You are just present so that they know that there is somebody there who cares for them and is a shoulder to cry on. And you don’t judge at all.”

Sometimes COBI chaplains are among the first at the scene of major disasters. After the deadly fuel tanker explosion at Boksburg which claimed 42 lives in December last year, a COBI team was involved from the start, said Richardson. They debriefed about a hundred hospital staff and they worked with family members. There work is not a quick in-and- out, he said. They walked with people traumatised by the blast for 10 months after the incident.

Pastor Jimmy Davis Eastern Cape area commander of COBI said it was exciting how the chaplain training allowed ordinary people with regular jobs to become aware of their gifting and be released in ministry.

“We have a wonderful relationship with the SAPS at the moment. We are putting chaplains in police departments, in hospitals — even in our schools,” he said.

“For instance yesterday two of our chaplains had to go to a primary school in Port Elizabeth. A little one in Grade 1 died at the weekend in a car accident. And the whole school was obviously distressed. So the chaplains had to deal with the class, with the teachers and the principal.”

Davis said that anybody in the Eastern Cape who has a heart for people going through crises and who would like to undergo training as a COBI chaplain can contact him at +27 82 575 8862.

People anywhere in SA who would like to be trained as emergency response chaplains may contact Craig Richardson at +27 71 379 3136 or info@cobi.org.za Training is available in-person and online.

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