Disasters come in all shapes and sizes. Some come with ample warning, some come as a thief in the night. Some disasters are a result of the forces at work in nature and, tragically, some disasters are the result of dark forces at work in those that mean to do great harm. For those who have experienced a disaster, the impact can be overwhelming and one is shaken to one’s foundation.
When looking for hope in the midst of chaos I am reminded of the words of the late Fred Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
As a person of faith involved in disaster response ministry I would add, “And look for the communities of faith.” In my 20-plus years of disaster ministry I have seen communities of faith step into the chaos to claim a foundation of hope. Hope that this too shall pass, hope that what was meant for evil can be redeemed, hope that we need not fear for we are not alone. I have seen communities of faith become the bedrock of a community that has been overwhelmed by a disaster.
This article will highlight how the church can be a source of hope before, during and after a disaster. You will read about real events from different disasters that have been woven together to present many of the expected twists and turns, challenges and opportunities. So, let’s begin at the beginning.
In disaster response circles it is said that the time to exchange business cards is not at the first meeting after a disaster.
Second Presbyterian Church is located in an area of Florida that experiences hurricanes. The church was going through a major rebuilding phase including a new family life center. The church leadership, being aware of the vulnerability, made an intentional decision to build the family life center to hurricane shelter specifications.
Yes, it did mean additional expense. Yes, it did mean a longer construction period. And yes, it did mean that the family life center was undamaged by the category 3 hurricane. Second Church became a safe harbor in the midst of the storm and a sanctuary for those in the community during the early response.
PARTICULARS TO CONSIDER
- Does the church have a disaster plan?
- Does your presbytery have a disaster committee?
- Have you established a relationship with the local Red Cross? Emergency management? Local first responders?
- Has the church considered adding a generator or showers to your campus?
Another church shared the same neighborhood as a school for decades. Many of the church’s youth attended the school. The church had weekly programs and students could easily walk or ride the church van to participate in a lively afternoon of recreation, study, fellowship and the very important pizza dinner.
The youth were encouraged to invite their friends and through this outreach new families began to visit. The church had a handful of adult members who worked at the school as teachers, administrative personnel and support staff.
In recent years, the church leadership reached out to the school to explore other possibilities that would be mutually beneficial and positive for the community. The church sponsored an all night after-prom celebration. The church leadership worked with the school leadership to develop this initiative.
This particular church was blessed with a campus that could easily host a large number of youth; however, they had a desire to make this a community-wide effort. The invitation went out to houses of worship of all sizes and affiliations. Community organizations were also invited. Many gladly accepted and participated on the leadership board, volunteered as chaperones and supplied supplies and food. The after-prom celebration is now a highly anticipated part of the school year.
Another, more serious, possibility was discussed. As a part of the school’s active shooter plan there was the need for a reunification site should the unthinkable happen. Tragically, it happened.
A student brought a gun to school and in 11 minutes shot a number of people and traumatized the entire community. As a result of thoughtful preparation, the church was able to respond, and the church fellowship hall served as a reunification site. First responders, school officials and church staff opened the fellowship hall to receive students and parents desperate to find each other.
As a part of the well-thought-out protocol a group of vetted, trained faith leaders were available to offer ministry of presence to offer calm in the midst of chaos.
PARTICULARS TO CONSIDER
- Does the church’s disaster plan include a protocol for an active shooter event?
- Have you invited your local law enforcement community outreach officer to meet with church leadership to discuss preparation and response?
- Is there a school that could use your campus as a reunification site?
Response resources for an active shooter event
Long-term recovery — A tale of two congregations
Wildfires are a yearly concern for a picturesque community located in an idyllic mountain setting. Tourists, especially those who love the outdoors, flock to this setting to step away from the hustle and bustle and enjoy the beauty of nature. One particular fire season was hotter than usual and drier than normal. This led to severe fire warnings for an extended period of time.
The fire started on a Tuesday, mandatory evacuations began on Thursday and the fire was finally contained 10 days later. By the numbers, there were hundreds of fire fighters called in from across the country to help fight this fire. Thousands of acres were burned by the fire. When the final assessment was completed, 1,257 structures were impacted. Of that number, 784 homes were either severely damaged or destroyed. About half of the homeowners had adequate insurance and about half did not.
Of those who did not have adequate insurance, there were two communities that were significantly impacted. One of the communities was comprised of mostly elderly residents on fixed incomes, of whom many had disabilities. The second community was comprised of working families. Most of the families had school-age children and the parents worked primarily in the service industry that supported the robust tourist economy.
It was clear from the early response that a Long-Term Recovery Group would be necessary to address the many unmet needs that were sure to arise. If tourism was to rebound, there needed to be a stable workforce, and the families that made up the workforce would need support to rebuild.
A significant part of the long-term recovery is housing for the many volunteers that expressed interest in helping to rebuild.
First Presbyterian Church was one of the first worshipping communities to be established in the area. They have a long and proud history. Back in the day, they were the leading congregation in the community. Their recent history has been filled with challenges, but they have a small, faithful group with deep roots in the community. The leadership met soon after the fire and pledged to do what they could.
They were an older congregation with limited means but had very important resources. They had the conviction to help and a church campus that was larger than needed with one building that was no longer in use.
The church leadership heard from a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) team deployed in the early response that there would likely be the need for volunteer housing. The team further explained that PDA helps to develop this type of housing. Typically, volunteer housing for the long-term recovery is done in partnership with a local congregation.
The Spirit was moving and the rest is history. PDA partnered with that congregation and the presbytery. The church went through a discernment process and the church committed to host volunteer groups for at least two years. It has been 14 months since the fire was extinguished and 27 groups have stayed at First Church. Those volunteers worked with 21 families impacted by the fire and all together the Long-Term Recovery Group has rebuilt or repaired 41 homes.
So, what exactly is a Long-Term Recovery Group? After a disaster with widespread impact within a community, a Long-Term Recovery Group (LTRG) is formed. A LTRG is a local, grassroots organization that forms to meet the unmet needs that are a result of a disaster. Ordinarily a LTRG is comprised of representatives from the faith community, nonprofit organizations, governmental partners and businesses that wish to support the recovery efforts.
A Long-Term Recovery Group, depending on the size of the disaster, can remain active for years and frequently becomes a 501(c)(3) organization that remains active after the recovery to be prepared for the next event.
The key to the success of a LTRG is the leadership. The stronger the leadership, the more successful the effort.
Community Presbyterian Church is a newer congregation and located far enough from the fire that the church and the congregation were not directly impacted. It was not practical for the church to be a host site. They did what they could. They collected items that were requested and needed in the early days. They collected money that was donated to the long-term recovery, but they wanted to do more.
It just so happened that their associate pastor had a first career in law enforcement and had personally responded to many disasters in neighboring communities. Knowing that Presbyterians know how to organize and are skilled in bringing people together, the leadership of Community Church gave their full support when their associate pastor felt called to volunteer her time to help get the LTRG organized.
After three months, she was elected the chair of the organization. After six months, funds were raised. With a portion of the funds, an executive director was hired. Fourteen months later, hundreds of volunteers repaired and rebuilt the homes of 41 families. Collectively, this event has brought hope out of chaos and the work continues.
PARTICULARS TO CONSIDER
- Have you reached out proactively to your local emergency management department?
- Google (your county & state plus “emergency management”).
- Are you familiar with the VOAD movement (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster)? nvoad.org
Disasters will continue to come in all shapes and sizes; however, the impacts of the disaster can be anticipated. With wisdom gained and thoughtful planning, individuals, churches and communities can be resilient.
In recent years, mitigation has become a crucial part of the disaster management world. Through federal funding, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) provides grants for communities to mitigate the impacts of disasters. FEMA grants have hardened crucial public buildings, improved infrastructures and relocated people out of vulnerable areas. Grants have helped to restore living coastlines, which were created to be resilient and to absorb storm surge much more effectively than seawalls, bulkheads, levees and rock revetments.
There is a place for houses of worship in mitigation! There is an abundance of initiatives that can be done to help your congregation and your community strengthen their resilience. Borrowing from our sacred text: “Be like a wise person who built their house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock” (Matthew 7:24b-25).
PARTICULARS TO CONSIDER
- Have you consulted with your insurance carrier to discuss mitigation efforts that will protect your property?
- Has your church been proactive in promoting individual and family disaster preparedness?
- Are you aware of the communities that are vulnerable to disasters and have you spoken out on their behalf?
For more information:
- Learn about Presbyterian Disaster Assistance at pcusa.org/pda.
- The book, “A Ready Hope: Effective Disaster Ministry for Congregations” by Kathryn M. Haueisen and Carol Flores, is an introduction for people of faith who are new to the ministry of disaster preparedness and response.
JAMES J. KIRK is a PC(USA) minister and associate for disaster response for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in Louisville, Kentucky.