The Faith Community & Disaster Ministry
The religious community plays a vital and unique role in meeting physical and spiritual needs in disaster-affected communities with particular focus on people with unmet needs who often fall through the cracks of assistance programs offered by government and other social service agencies.
Most people who led normal, healthy lives before the disaster can recover with temporary assistance. Others, however, may not be able to recover as quickly. Although the federal Individual and Households Program (IHP) provides much needed assistance, some people will not receive enough aid through insurance or other programs for home repairs or rebuilding after their disaster losses. When personal resources or insurance are not adequate, recovery is impaired. The religious community is there to help.
The religious community also has a special role to fulfill as people rebuild their lives emotionally and spiritually after a disaster. People of faith can offer spiritual support to survivors and caregivers in the rescue stage following a disaster at staging and evacuation areas. When other responders are providing relief assistance – medical services, food, and temporary shelter, the faith community can offer support to survivors, professional caregivers, and volunteers as it maintains established traditions of spiritual care and religious observances.
As disaster recovery continues, still other needs emerge. After other assisting organizations complete their disaster response missions, local faith-based organizations assume more responsibility and work with other community-based groups in ongoing recovery.
In long-term recovery, the religious community plays its biggest role. It assists in cleanup, repair, and rebuilding, coordinates volunteers, and advocates for those who need physical help while continuing to offer spiritual and pastoral care to support high levels of hope and effective work among survivors and caregivers who are tired and may be burning out or becoming discouraged.
Jesus as the compassionate servant, comforter, and advocate and his focus on helping “the least of these” provide a framework for understanding the religious community’s work in disaster. It is an incarnational role — being the bodily presence of God, as in Jesus Christ — in the midst of the “hell” a disaster produces — particularly for those who are most vulnerable to the effects of the disaster. Bringing hope and order to the chaos.
While there are many governmental and private relief programs, there are limits to what they can do for disaster victims. Some of the limits have to do with the amount of money available for the program and the organization’s policies on how that money is to be shared. Some of the people who administer these programs – especially if they do it frequently – have hardened themselves to the guilt and emotional drain they feel feel from having to say “no” to people who face loss and hard times. This is where the faith-based organizations come in.
As a compassionate servant, the religious community helps meet relief needs, stepping in to assist when other assistance is just not enough.
As a comforter, the religious community renews people and their communities after a disaster by providing opportunities and places for disaster survivors to find fellowship and friendship and share their stories. Counseling/caring — listening to survivors, walking through grief and guilt with them so they can move toward acceptance of their present condition, and providing hope so they can set goals for the future and transcend the disaster experience — is an important part of the religious community’s role as comforter.
As an advocate, the religious community focuses on justice in responding to disasters. It engages in family and household advocacy (helping people access the systems that offer aid to which they are entitled) and public policy advocacy (working for laws and regulations that protect men, women, and children). In being the presence of God, the religious community reaffirms values and beliefs and offers redemption, renewal, new life and most importantly, hope — the one thing no other disaster responder can bring to people.
Help From Above
As an umbrella organization, Church World Service (CWS) helps the faith community play its unique role in disaster preparedness, mitigation, and response as a coordinating organization for its denominational members in the U.S.
The CWS Emergency Response Program assists disaster-affected persons through spiritual and physical support that empower local/regional/state religious leadership who want to work together toward building or restoring community. Although the CWS disaster response commitment comes from the imperative of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, its program invites and welcomes all religious groups to work together in meeting humanitarian needs.
Six Church World Service member and related denominations also actively deploy staff and volunteers following disasters in the U.S. to do specialized work: Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (volunteer housing and hospitality), Church of Brethren (rebuilding/repairing homes, disaster child care), Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (rebuilding/repair homes, needs assessments, long-term recovery organization capacity building), Lutheran Disaster Response (rebuilding/repairing homes, case management), Mennonite Disaster Service (rebuilding/repairing homes), United Methodist Committee on Relief (rebuilding/repairing homes, case management).
Remember – It’s Okay to Pray
It should be the first thing you do when you hear about a disaster and want to help. It is going to be one of the best tools you can have to get through the ordeal. Even the toughest, most hardened emergency responders turn to prayer more often than they admit … if only to stop their private weeping at the loss they see and keep doing their jobs.
O God, our times are in your hand. In the midst of uncertainty lead us by your never-failing grace as we seek to be agents of healing and hope. Walk with us through difficult times; watch over us in danger; and give to us a spirit of love and compassion for those who suffer and mourn. And finally remind us that you have promised never to leave us so that even in the valley of the shadow of death your love may be felt, through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.
— The Rev. Lyndon Harris, from the Episcopal Diocese of New York Disaster Preparedness Plan