Most people do not know how to effectively prepare for or respond to disasters. Moreover, in conducting research around the globe, David and I have found a great deal of variability among how ready churches are for disasters. Some churches in high-risk areas are relatively prepared, and others little or not at all.
We have found an alarming trend: most churches realize there are threats but few do anything ahead of time to actually prepare for disasters. Though we have found many churches volunteer and help other churches in communities that are affected by disasters, most are not ready for a disaster that could directly impact their congregation or community. However, there is good news. There are numerous practical steps congregations can take to prepare for and recover from disasters.
Thus, the purpose of this book is to help churches learn how to plan, launch and sustain disaster ministries. Throughout this handbook we will provide best practices and lessons learned that will help your church and community to be more resilient in the face of catastrophes, crises and emergencies.
David and I (Jamie) will also share numerous examples throughout the book to help you apply what you are learning. Many will come from my own personal Hurricane Katrina experience and from my time living in Mississippi. We will also provide examples from the work that David and I have done through Wheaton College’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI) all over the world with churches impacted by disasters and humanitarian crises. Then we will introduce discussion questions and tools that will help you and your congregation build on this knowledge so that you can develop an effective disaster ministry.
Overall, this handbook is designed to help you navigate disasters, from emergency planning through the recovery process. The handbook gives congregations and denominations or associations the critical concepts and components of effective emergency planning and response.
Why This Handbook
Since the 1980s there has been roughly a 400 percent increase in natural disasters. The world’s five costliest natural disasters have occurred in the past twenty years, with three of those disasters striking in the last eight years alone. There have also been nearly 5,000 terrorist events annually over the last ten years. As we write in HDI’s Ready Faith: Planning Guide,
Natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, fires and tornadoes can strike a community with little or no warning. An influenza pandemic, or other infectious disease, can spread from person to person causing serious illness across the country or around the globe in a very short time. Mass shootings have increased in frequency. The harrowing events of September 11 and subsequent terrorist attempts have ushered in a new awareness of terrorist threats. The unfortunate reality is that many congregations in this country may be touched either directly or indirectly by a disaster of some kind at any time.
In brief, you might think of a disaster as anything that disrupts civic society.
In our research and the research of others, it has been found that many people turn to faith and to local congregations for answers and assistance when disaster strikes. You may have never thought about your church’s role in responding to a disaster in your own community. But if your doors are open after a disaster strikes your area, people will come to you for help. “Knowing what to do when faced with a crisis can be the difference between calm and chaos, between courage and fear, between life and death.” If you are going to be ready, the time to plan is now. When a crisis strikes, it is too late to get prepared and too late to start working with those in need. By taking action now you can save lives and prevent harm during a disaster as you extend your ministry to those who need help.
Another reason you should read this handbook is because it will help your church respond to our biblical calling to justice. In the most basic view, this is a book about justice. We will make the case that the vulnerable suffer disproportionately from all types of disasters. Further, the vulnerable often go unrecognized as vulnerable, or for a host of reasons are not helped by many public programs. This is a place where the church belongs and needs to be present. You may have heard it said that “disasters don’t discriminate.” There is some truth to this, that regardless of financial status, race, ethnicity, gender and so on, disasters can impact anyone. However, the longer that we have been doing this research, the more our eyes have been opened to how disasters reveal injustices. The poor, fragile, very old and young, people with the fewest resources and connections are actually at more risk and have a more difficult time recovering than others. Therein lies an opportunity for the church, as well as one of the basic reasons we wrote this handbook.
Who Should Read This Handbook
On a practical level, the handbook is for anyone who is part of or works with congregations and has a heart for disaster ministry—whether a pastor, lay leader, professional in relief and development, or academic researcher. The material is designed to speak to the questions and issues that congregations face when they consider a disaster ministry. The material in this handbook does not require or assume any particular set of skills or knowledge. All that is needed is a desire to help others and a prayerful attitude.
Why Congregations Should Have a Disaster Ministry
Churches see serving those in need as a basic expression of Christ’s love. When disaster strikes a community, near or far, church members want to do something to express their concern and care. Add to that the fact that disasters are on the rise, and you see a rapidly growing number of disaster ministries.
Further, as population density increases, the potential impact of disasters in terms of the human toll drastically increases. At the same time, government resources are facing cuts and there is a growing recognition that government certainly cannot do it all, and cannot do it alone. For all these reasons, congregations have an opportunity to become involved in disasters as a basic area of ministry. We have heard the following from congregation leaders who support a disaster ministry:
• Congregations can provide broad-based prevention as well as holistic care for individuals after a disaster incident. Holistic care provides for the physical, emotional and spiritual parts of a person’s life.
• Congregations can reach people in need that other groups and agencies cannot reach, and thus help those who would otherwise go unserved.
• Disaster work can be integrated into the other ministries of a congregation and strengthen those same ministries.
• Congregations can be a source for community action. The connection with people in the community helps with assessing needs and risks and identifying possible actions.
• Congregations can advocate on behalf of the marginalized and vulnerable, as in ensuring fair distributions of health care or food, or determining where help is needed most.
• Congregations may provide key resources during a disaster, such as using a meeting space as a rest or evacuation center, or storing and distributing food, water, equipment and other resources.
• Congregations are already a center for communication, allowing meetings and messages to be communicated to a significant number of people on a regular basis.
• Congregations can provide a willing body of volunteers (members of the congregation, clergy and leaders) who are motivated by love and compassion.
There are also scriptural and theological reasons to be concerned about disasters, though it may not be in the way you may think. A basic premise of our work is that disasters reveal the underlying fabric of a community. As we have stated, vulnerable people suffer disproportionately in a disaster.
Further, the ways of being vulnerable to a disaster are greater than most people realize. Vulnerability comes from a wide variety of characteristics, such as being a single parent with young children (anyone who has parented multiple young children knows that everything related to running a home is more complicated), being medically fragile, very young, very old, or poor. Even the type of job you have can increase vulnerability. In my work, I can do my job from anywhere, as long as I have a computer and a phone (which I generally carry with me). If I was a machinist and the machine shop was destroyed in a disaster, I would be out of work for an unknown length of time. The same is true for any job dependent upon equipment or a facility, like a restaurant or office building.
Therefore, we restate the question from “Should churches be involved in disasters?” to “Should churches be serving those most vulnerable to harm?” The disaster event, then, is not the focus of ministry; it is the test of how well the community cares for those who are most vulnerable. Put that way, the scriptural support is clear and well known to most Christians, from the proclamation of the church as the salt of the earth, the call to the church as the light of the world (Mt 5:13-16) and the repeated call throughout the Bible to serve the vulnerable (e.g., Mt 25:35; Acts 10:4).
Strengths of the Local Congregation
Disasters are not only a test of the community and the church, but they are also opportunities for the church to show its strengths. Local congregations are uniquely situated in their communities to help with disaster preparedness, response and recovery. This position is due to the character of the church as a community of service that cares for one another and the community around them, bearing witness to the work of Christ through their relationships. This character serves as the basis for establishing relationships of trust based on wanting what is best for the other person. This trust means the church has, or can have, relationships with people that agencies or outside groups cannot have. To understand how important and special this is, consider the disaster examples we listed at the start. Immigrant workers often live in fear of deportation, so they do not ask for help and certainly do not talk to government agencies. Elderly people in high crime areas live in fear of being harmed and may not open their doors to people they do not know, even if those people are trying to help them survive a heat wave. The elderly are especially vulnerable during natural disasters because they may not know what to do, or they may need help to move but do not know where to find that help. Each of these cases requires a relationship of trust built up over time so that the needs of these vulnerable groups are known and someone can minister to them. No group or agency is in the position to connect with people and build trust the way the local church is.
Besides building relationships of trust, the local church is often faithful in serving the community, staying for the long term. People see this in the way the local church is often first to respond and last to leave in a disaster. Because it is part of the community, it has a long-term presence that allows people to trust that it will be there when needed. The local church is most likely to know where the needs are and how to serve them. For example, a local emergency management office we frequently work with found that although they wanted to send people to the most vulnerable during a disaster, such as the elderly or medically fragile, their database of where these people lived was often out of date. As a result, valuable time was wasted sending emergency workers to locations where no one lived. Their solution to the problem was to work with local churches to reach out to people in need as they were the ones most likely to know the neighborhoods.
Much of the information in this handbook draws on the experiences and wisdom of the overall Christian relief community. In the following pages we unpack what we have learned from some of the great resources available. We have also adapted promising practices from the broader emergency-management community that can be used to help your congregation. Further, we share heavily out of our own experiences of helping and studying disasters around the globe:
• Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav
• the national H1N1 outbreak
• the 2010 Mississippi Delta and 2011 Tuscaloosa tornadoes
• the Haiti earthquake and Japan earthquake and tsunami
• Deepwater Horizon oil spill
• typhoons in the Philippines
• displaced people in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo
The recommendations we make are also based on our work with churches of all sizes, types and denominations; Christian relief and development organizations; public health departments; and emergency management agencies.
Taken from Disaster Ministry Handbook by Jamie D. Aten and David M. Boan. Copyright (c) 2016 by Jamie D. Aten and David M. Boan. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com