As a child, I loved Palm Sunday and Easter. They were the happiest days in the church year and provided a chance to wear a festive new dress and holler “HE IS RISEN INDEED!” in the sanctuary, where I was generally required to stay quiet. However, the churches of my childhood largely ignored what happened in between those two Sundays of celebration. As a pastor, I embraced Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. I felt that ignoring those days on the long, hard road to resurrection impoverished our sacred story and robbed congregants of a faith narrative necessary to navigating life’s harder journeys.
Suffering and death are real. The road to resurrection goes through the valley of the shadow. This is life, the foundation of a resurrection faith. I learned this firsthand as a pastor in Miami, Florida, caring for a congregation and building impacted by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. That experience as well as my work for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) have taught me to care for those afflicted by disaster using the language of lament and the liturgical practices of waiting, bearing witness and listening to the voices of those long silenced. Resurrection is a gift of God shaped by these practices, and so, too, is the work of accompanying disaster survivors and refugees on the road to restoration.
In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), this accompaniment on the road to resurrection is the charge of PDA, a program of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Our twofold mandate is to equip the church to respond to those adversely affected by disaster (natural and human-caused) and to support humanitarian aid to refugees and asylum seekers. We work in the U.S. and globally, in collaboration with our sibling offices of advocacy, development and racial equity. We are in partnership with mid councils, congregations, ecumenical/interfaith partners and the larger community to support those who are most vulnerable in the wake of catastrophe and displacement. PDA is a restricted budget program, one of three in the PC(USA) supported by The One Great Hour of Sharing special offering received at Easter, and funds large-scale disaster response through Special Appeals and designated giving. We are centered in the Matthew 25 vision commended by our General Assembly, seeking to address the alleviation of poverty, the eradication of racism and to support congregational vitality through responding to disaster and supporting refugees.
Disaster response begins long before a disaster with preparedness strategies, “goes live” when a disaster is anticipated or has struck, becomes operational in emergency response and short- and long-term recovery and, whenever possible, extends into disaster-based development, advocacy and long-term mitigation. PDA’s core strategy is to seek an invitation into the community; to engage with and through local responders; to connect with regional and global partners; and to do our work intersectionally in ways that address recovery, resilience, rebuilding and equitable access for communities and people structurally excluded from access to resources or impacted by historical harms.
We believe disaster and its aftermath unfold on holy ground, and accompany affected communities with patience and respect. The experience of disaster or displacement overwhelms and disrupts lives. It is apocalyptic, both in the popular sense that it feels world-ending to those who endure it and in the theological sense that disaster uncovers what has been hidden. In disaster, historical harms and structural inequity are revealed when only part of a community clearly has resources to rebuild. We saw this recently in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where blue tarps on roofs, heaps of yard waste and damaged property persisted for months, even years after Hurricane Laura in 2020. Effects of systemic poverty and racism and lack of access to political clout are revealed when disaster pulls back the curtain hiding these persisting inequities from those of us who live with privilege.
Disaster also uncovers the potential for change; it is a crucible of transformation. In the days after the death and resurrection of Jesus, his overwhelmed, grieving followers kept to themselves, trying to make meaning of what they had experienced when Jesus died and was resurrected. In time, caring for one another and sharing their stories expanded their worldview. They questioned ways that no longer served the emerging world and built bridges across religious and cultural divides. Old boundaries eroded and a new community was nurtured. Rebuilding after disaster should follow a similar path.
This principle became visible to me on a visit to the Philippines after Super Typhoon Haiyan (locally called Yolanda), a storm whose devastation centered on a region with many congregations of our partner, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP). PDA’s initial response was a solidarity gift to support the UCCP as they provided emergency relief to their communities. Levi Lou, the UCCP mission coordinator in that jurisdiction, told us how hard it was to take care of their people in the aftermath.
After the storm, the distribution of food aid and shelter was impossible in some of the remote villages. The church heard of desperate circumstances among its stricken congregations and gathered food to bring directly to those who were suffering. One village outside Tacloban was nearly wiped out, inaccessible due to the ruined roads. They rented motorcycles to bring food in through destroyed roads, driving several hours from Ormoc to get there. They knew there were 55 families in that congregation and had prepared 5-kilo packages of rice and oil and other supplies per family. But instead of 55 member families, there were 300 families gathered around the rubble of the UCCP church. They said, “We are not members of the UCCP, but we are hungry and have nothing. Can we have food?” Levi Lou and the pastor looked at each other, and Levi said, “This is a day when we have no religion.” The 5-kilo bags were broken down into 1.5 kilos — everyone got rice. The Yolanda response continued for years, and UCCP’s work became known for the ways it reached beyond boundaries and worked with its congregations to lift up and heal whole communities.
Our work is rooted in relationship, beginning with ministry of presence. When invited to respond after disaster, we commit to listen deeply, centering the experiences and needs of those most affected, for the response belongs to them, not to us. In the Gospels’ resurrection stories, it was the women who first encountered the empty tomb and the risen Christ, but their stories were dismissed. How might those early days have been different had the women been heard? What church would have emerged if the voices of people Jesus befriended and healed had been included from the beginning?
For disaster response to be transformative, we must hear the voices of those who have been silenced and excluded. Internationally, this means we must acknowledge and repent of the sins of colonialism and resist saviorism in all its aspects. We need to put in the time to build respectful relationships with neighbors in the Global South, honoring priorities set by our partners, not our donors or ourselves. We work collaboratively, not competitively. We take the time to find and equip the people able to reach into areas where others may not go.
After the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, many global Christian organizations had difficulty setting up effective responses due to Nepal’s religious protections and prohibitions against proselytizing. PDA follows the global humanitarian core principle not to proselytize and we hoped to work locally. We worked with Sheku Sillah, a disaster specialist from Sierra Leone who is now part of PDA staff, for nearly a year to mentor young Nepali citizens who wanted to help their country. We taught them to do assessments, create transformative projects and bring people in rural villages together to rebuild and create a more sustainable future. One group birthed from this training, Juneli, focused on isolated villages where women and Dalit families were excluded from access to resources and lived in poverty. Another group, Together for Nepal, found villages in another remote area and worked with schools to rebuild, secure safe drinking water and teach woodworking, sewing, farming and basic electrician skills. Relationships were built across boundaries, and when COVID-19 struck, PDA was able to quickly get health, hygiene, food aid and COVID-19 sensitization resources into a country that was catastrophically impacted by the pandemic — because relationships and decentering ourselves are key response strategies.
Our approach is connectional and intersectional. From the cross, Jesus commended his mother into the care of John. The women stood together as Jesus died, holding each other up. Early in the morning, they came together to the tomb. Across the Gospels, as each saw, heard or believed for themselves that Jesus had risen, their instinctive move was toward community — to share stories, to listen with their hearts, to seeking meaning together. When at last they believed and Jesus ascended, it was in community that the disciples came together and began sharing good news. In the U.S., when PDA begins a response, we connect our partners with other responders at a communal long-term recovery table, focusing resources where they can strengthen the whole and broaden the impact of recovery. Globally, through partner churches and organizations, we implement the same strategy.
When the Afghan resettlement crisis began in September 2021, PDA’s refugee and asylum ministry reached out to Church World Service and other denominations, sharing information, working on mapping needs and resources. We prioritized interventions that would provide the most help for Afghan refugees and the best opportunities to connect and strengthen refugee welcome networks here in the United States. A PDA Refugee National Response Team member reached out to say her congregation and presbytery and a nearby Presbyterian camp were interested in hosting Afghans as they transitioned from military bases into communities. Refugee Ministry provided a grant and coordinated the process of setting up this ongoing project of welcome, supporting First Presbyterian Church of Winchester, Shenandoah Presbytery, Massanetta Springs Camp and Conference Center and the local Church World Service resettlement office as they began and continue to receive Afghan families and individuals. As the old proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Within PDA, the work is held in four “shops”:
Domestic Disaster Response responds to disasters, natural or human-caused, occurring within the U.S. and U.S. territories. This work includes the full spectrum of the “disaster cycle” described above, initiated by an invitation from a Presbyterian mid council. PDA’s disaster response includes: offering emergency and longer-term recovery grants; accompaniment (ministry of presence, guidance and coordination) by staff and members of the National Response Team and volunteers; trauma-informed support for the resilience of faith leaders through emotional and spiritual care programs; and pairing local “host” congregations with volunteer work teams. PDA works with National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster ecumenical and interfaith partners. Many of PDA’s preparedness trainings are a collaboration with Presbyterian Women, who have been certified and commissioned by PDA to help congregations and presbyteries prepare for disaster.
International Disaster Response engages disaster response globally. We partner with other members of the ACT Alliance (a global alliance of faith-based agencies doing disaster response, advocacy and development) and with regional church and NGO partners where the disaster has happened. Within the PC(USA), we coordinate with Presbyterian World Mission, the Presbyterian Hunger Program and the Presbyterian Committee for the Self-Development of People. Our engagements range from emergency solidarity grants right after disaster through long-term responses centering the needs and vision of the impacted people, building capacity and strengthening the resilience and sustainability of vulnerable communities.
Refugee and Asylum Ministry. Under General Assembly mandate, PDA supports humanitarian aid to refugees and displaced persons. Recently, this work has focused on the people of Ukraine and Afghanistan among other places. To do this work, we partner with ecumenical organizations, related church agencies, middle governing bodies and congregations. We provide training, education, grants and information for advocacy efforts, and work to connect churches and neighbors with each other and those seeking refuge in their communities. We prioritize opportunities that lift up the voices of the refugee community and support their self-determination. Globally, we provide resources and work collaboratively with countries hosting refugees to ensure safety and provide support. We have a long-term partnership with Church World Service, one of nine agencies tasked with resettling refugees in the United States.
Story Ministry seeks to “hear the voices of those long silenced” (A Brief Statement of Faith) and support advocacy by producing films that share the stories of communities and individuals impacted by violence, disaster and displacement. Impact campaigns connect the films with local communities and churches. The films address a wide range of events and are accompanied with study guides so that congregations and communities can build their understanding, faith and engagement with these issues. Story Ministry reaches beyond church walls, with films like “Trigger: The Ripple Effect of Gun Violence” and “Flint: The Poisoning of An American City” hosted on multiple streaming services, reaching more than three million downloads. “Flint” is being used by the Environmental Protection Agency as a training film on environmental racism and recently inspired communities impacted by ethylene oxide contamination to reach out to PDA in an effort to raise public awareness of their plight.
Taking the long road to resurrection with fellow Presbyterians, neighbors and those rebuilding after disaster is a privilege. I would like to close with the words of my friend Haitham Jazrawi, pastor of the Kirkuk, Iraq, Evangelical Church, whose small congregation sheltered 60 families who fled Mosel during the 2014 ISIS takeover. Together, they also supported Yazidi families in a refugee camp outside Kirkuk. Describing this experience, he said: “We have the mercy of Christ in all things, so we cannot isolate ourselves from the pain of others. We have information to help us not to burn out — so we can go down with them into the valley of despair. Helping is a very great gift. In our church, we share many fellowship meals — to help them not to be isolated. The church people also have a role to pastor the refugees, to support them, they can express love, and this is the most needed by the refugees. To see, to touch the love — not to speak it or preach it, but to touch the love. Our love will never end — the more we give love, the more we have love, because it comes from Jesus Christ.”