CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – The Rev. Al Belleseuille remembers in 1997 when two state troopers, a newspaper editor and a part-time judge were shot dead in his small town of Colebrook.

Pain and grief overtook the rural northern New Hampshire community. “Of course, everybody knew these people,” Belleseuille said.

People turned to their religious leaders for comfort and for answers, trying to make sense of Carl Drega’s shooting rampage. At the same time, area pastors were arranging memorial services and dealing with a media onslaught. Such burdens can be overwhelming, especially when a pastor is grieving the loss as well.

“It was very difficult,” said Belleseuille, a Roman Catholic priest.

While clergy routinely respond to family tragedies, many have never faced large-scale disasters that affect entire communities.

Recognizing a need, the state is using a federal grant to bring a specialist to lead disaster preparedness workshops for clergy. Psychologist Katrina Cochran of Oklahoma City counseled families after the bombing of the federal building there in 1995 and developed training materials for faith leaders after the terrorist attacks of 2001.

“It’s part of the whole response to Sept. 11 and the bioterrorism funds,” said Geoff Souther, head of the state Bureau of Behavioral Health.

The $5,000 grant will pay for workshops at four different locations in the state this fall, free to clergy of any denomination. Church World Service Inc. of New York was selected from three bidders and is contributing matching funds to cover Cochran’s traveling expenses.

Cochran, a member of the Disciples of Christ, said her approach is nondenominational and focuses on the special demands involved in providing pastoral care after a disaster.

“There’s tremendous interest,” Souther said.

David Lamarre-Vincent, executive director of the New Hampshire Council of Churches, confirmed that. Clerics “don’t receive this kind of training in the ordinary course of events,” he said.

Cochran said she developed a specialty working with clergy after observing the emotional effects of the Oklahoma City bombing on her own community. As a planned attack that killed 168 people, the bombing provoked much more rage than most human tragedies, she said. It also brought pastors into contact with people outside their own communities, people who needed someone to hear their pain, anger and confusion.

Since then, Cochran has counseled groups dealing with crises ranging from airplane crashes to tornados and hurricanes.

“There are many ways that a spiritual community can help people in their grief process,” said Cochran, who once worked as a minister in Edmond, Okla.

After Sept. 11, 2001, churches provided havens – at least temporarily – to those struggling to understand the enormity of what had happened. Church attendance spiked after the attacks, but dropped back to pre-attack levels soon after.

“There was a large influx coming into the church looking for some answers, looking for some comfort,” said the Rev. Kevin Twombly of Grace Capital Church in Pembroke. “A lot of people wanted to know why God would allow that to happen.”

It wasn’t an easy time for many clergy.

“Many of these faith leaders were overwhelmed,” said Tony Poekert, who is in charge of parish outreach for New Hampshire Catholic Charities. “We felt in New Hampshire, it would be good to be prepared.”

As Belleseuille knows, a major tragedy can reverberate within a community for years. He will be presiding over a memorial service this month marking the eighth anniversary of the Colebrook shootings.

State officials are working with the Council of Churches to ensure all faiths know about the workshops. “We’ll make every effort to make it as inclusive as we can,” Lamarre-Vincent said.

Many religious leaders and state officials see the program as a wise investment. As Poekert said, “it’s not if a disaster occurs, but when.”

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