I’ve spent my career as a psychologist researching connections between faith and disaster resilience. I didn’t set out to be a disaster psychologist. I had planned to build a career studying rural health disparities.
Then just six days after moving to South Mississippi to teach at a large state university, something happened: Hurricane Katrina struck. I knew very little about disaster resilience at the time. However, I made an observation that changed the course of my career. I noticed that there seemed to be a link, some sort of connection, between faith and disaster resilience.
I saw faith spur congregations and organizations into action, from mucking out houses to providing much needed spiritual care. I heard clients report how central their faith was to their recovery. I met an out-of-state volunteer as we were both peering over the edge of what was left of the US 90 bridge in Biloxi. He remarked that it looked like Katrina had tossed the giant concrete slabs that had once been a bridge into the water, much like one might toss down a losing hand of cards in disgust. I asked him why he was volunteering and he replied, “My faith.” Lastly, I observed instances where faith either had the potential to or did cause significant distress. I remember attending a large congregation where the pastor taught that emotional struggles after Katrina were nothing more than signs of a weak spiritual life.
As a researcher, I felt compelled to empirically test my observations about faith and disaster resilience. I began collecting data for my first Katrina study 2 months after the storm. Even now, on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I’m still studying faith and disaster resilience among Katrina survivors. Following are some of the empirical lessons I’ve learned along the way with my colleagues and students.
Many people turn to local congregations or clergy for help before professional helpers, first responders, or government.
Not surprisingly, this pattern of help-seeking behavior was evident in a survey, published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience, that we did with congregation attendees after Katrina. Yet, in another study we implemented in secular settings, the majority of survivors reported benefiting from receiving religious support regardless of religious belief, affiliation, or previous religious attendance. That is, even people who aren’t active members of a faith community sought out and got religious help and benefited from having done so.
In a separate study we did examining collaboration between clergy and mental health professionals after Katrina, many of the pastors echoed this finding, with one sharing, “If your church doors are open after a disaster people are going to come to you for help, and even if all that’s left is a slab [foundation], they are still coming to you.”
Meaning-making helps survivors not only make sense of their experience, but also helps them cope.
Our research suggests that there may be a threshold of stress needed before people shift from a secular way of understanding their experience to a more religious understanding. The more personal the loss or perceived threat of a disaster, the more likely religion and spirituality will be engaged amid that disaster. We found meaning-making drastically decreases trauma symptoms.
To our surprise, when we specifically separated out and analyzed spiritual meaning-making, trauma symptoms actually went up. My colleague Daryl R. Van Tongeren, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Hope College, suggests one way of thinking about this is that stress is leading to greater engagement of spiritual meaning-making.