By Bob Smietana
After a disaster, victims often need food, shelter, and a dose of kindness, says Southern Baptist chaplain Endell Lee.
Faith-based volunteers and churches provide for people’s immediate needs when disaster strikes. But they also provide much-needed hope.
“People need someone to walk alongside them after a disaster,” says Lee.
Lee, a Naval Reserve chaplain and self-described “spiritual paramedic,” spent six years as national coordinator for disaster spiritual care with the North American Mission Board.
His job: train volunteers to “infuse faith, hope, love, grace, and comfort into the situation, so people can begin picking up the pieces and putting their lives back together.”
That grace and comfort can be found in a hot meal, a bottle of water, or even a listening ear. It’s especially important as people take stock of their lives after a disaster and figure out what to do next.
Spiritual first aid
As a disaster relief chaplain, Lee would often go alongside other volunteers who were clearing debris or cleaning out damaged homes.
“The chaplain is there to listen to that family tell their story—to let them vent their grief and pain—and to validate their current reality,” says Lee. By doing so, the chaplain can help victims process their experience and find a way to begin rebuilding their lives, as well as their homes.
Pastors or other church members can provide similar spiritual first aid, says Jamie Aten, executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College.
Aten, who will soon be training church volunteers in Houston, says the spiritual and emotional consequences of disasters are often overlooked. It’s easy to see the physical side—a lost home or injuries. But disasters also can cause an existential crisis. They remind victims—and the rest of us—how fragile life can be.
“You come face to face with the reality there is a lot of life you can’t control—or that you may not be able to control,” says Aten. “That is really difficult for us as human beings.”
For years, Aten has surveyed disaster survivors. People who can find meaning in what happened to them will do better after a disaster, he says.
Talk less, smile more
But finding meaning takes time. He cautions pastors and well-meaning volunteers to avoid “bumper-sticker theology”—things that sound good but have little substance.
The best way to help is to provide for victims’ physical needs and then pay attention as they tell their stories.
Serving meals, handing out water, or cleaning out someone’s house provides for the physical needs, says Aten. It also provides space for folks to tell their stories.
He’s often seen people come to a center that’s serving meals and tell their story to everyone they see as they walk through the line.
“They tell the same story over and over—that’s how they process what they’ve been through,” he says. “In that situation, listen more and talk less.”
The importance of showing up
When a disaster hits, showing up really matters. Aten calls it a “ministry of presence.”
He recently took a group of counselors to northern Illinois, where there had been some flooding. He told them they’d be providing spiritual care, and then handed out shovels.
His point was this: You can’t provide spiritual care in an office or behind a desk. You’ve got to get out and show people you care before they will trust you, says Aten.
Pastor Kim David McCroskey agrees.
McCroskey is pastor of Roaring Fork Baptist Church in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where 14 church members lost homes during wildfires in November 2016. The church’s buildings also burned to the ground.
Over the past year, he’s spent a lot of time praying with people and helping them pick up the pieces of their lives.
“You can’t convince people that you are concerned unless you are willing to get your hands dirty,” he says.
At first, McCroskey had to help people through the shock that followed the wildfires. For some, he says, watching their church building burn down was worse than losing their home.
Even though Roaring Fork used a temporary location to continue meeting, some church members haven’t been back. McCroskey hopes they’ll return once the rebuilt church is open.
He’s had to remind them—even in the midst of a disaster—the church has a role to play. “We still have ministry to do,” he says. “The church is still here.”
The power of surrender
When he studied survivors of Hurricane Katrina, Aten found that those who were able to surrender their new circumstances to God did better.
At first, Aten thought these survivors had just given up. “I did not like the outcomes of that study,” he says. “It reminded me of a bad country song. I thought it would lead to passive acceptance of whatever happened.”
Instead, he found “willful surrender” was actually empowering and helped recovery. By surrendering what they could not control to God, people were able to accept their new circumstances and make the best of things.
That’s not a simple process. A disaster can change the entire trajectory of someone’s life, says Ted Law, pastor of Access Covenant Church in Houston.
About a dozen families at the church were forced to evacuate their homes during Hurricane Harvey. Some lost all their possessions. Whatever they suffered physically, almost everyone in the congregation was left with emotional scars.
One minute, life was normal. The next, the floodwaters washed everything away. People need immediate assistance with food and shelter, says Law, but they also need time to come to grips with the aftermath of the storm.
“It’s hard to process things quickly when you have lost so much,” says Law.
He says the church will host a spiritual first aid training session with Aten to prepare people to minister to their neighbors over the long haul.
The church has already started. Twenty volunteers cleaned up a church member’s home. “That will be something people remember for a long time,” Law says.
After dealing with the immediate needs, he says, the next step in recovery is helping people begin to deal with the long-term consequences.
Finances have become a major worry. Those affected by the storm don’t know whether they’ll have enough money to rebuild.
A lot of dreams may have to be put on hold or abandoned, he says. With so many resources going to recovery, students may have to put off going to college and aging parents may be forced to move in with their adult children.
“It makes a huge spiritual impact,” Law says.
Everyone can serve
Every church—no matter what size—can find a way to help disaster victims. Some can help out with recovery efforts, says Lee. Others can give funds to help victims of disaster. Everyone can pray, he says.
Recovering from a disaster is a long-term process. And it can change your life—something Lee knows firsthand.
A longtime Naval chaplain, Lee had just returned from Iraq and was living in New Orleans when Katrina hit. He’d already done disaster relief in New York after 9/11. But after Katrina, it became his full-time ministry for six years.
He says victims will need an abundance of care and hope to get through and move on with their lives. And churches have a unique role to play.
“Christians talk a lot about faith, hope, and love,” he says. “That’s what churches can bring to disaster relief.”
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer for Facts & Trends.