In the last seven months, we have witnessed super storm Sandy, the shootings at Sandy Hook, the Boston bombings, the explosion in West, Texas, and now the tornado devastation in Oklahoma. Churches were active in responding to all of these emergencies, and some are asking how they can be better prepared for the ones ahead.
There are many things churches can do that will equip them to serve others more effectively during a crisis. Preparing at both the church and home levels is important, since a church's plans will be frustrated if church households are not ready. And spiritual preparation will make the difference between a faith-filled response to tragedy and one coming from anger, unbelief, or fear.
What churches have learned
Right after 9/11, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City was flooded with requests for help—and with generous gifts from all over to help meet those needs. Because their church had an organized diaconate with trained leaders, Redeemer was able to distribute assistance much more efficiently than groups arriving after the event. "We saw many other relief efforts spend a great deal of money on hiring new staff and renting office space—very high cost items," says Tim Keller. This may be a good lesson to support existing churches and ministries when we can, rather than "build our own."
One lesson Redeemer learned from 9/11 was to watch for burnout among their staff. "We did not recognize the danger as much as we should have," Keller said.
After super storm Sandy, Redeemer again relied on its robust diaconate, but they encountered other problems because the disaster. "We had difficulty connecting quickly with the thousands of people in the Redeemer community to make sure everyone was okay," said Bruce Terrell, executive pastor. Large power outages compounded communication problems. "We also believe we can do a better job of partnering with the city to work in concert with the needs they identify," says Terrell.
Another church affected by Sandy, in a low-income area of New York City, was Infinity NY Church. They learned before the storm to put all church cell numbers on phones they could use whether normal power was running or not. This helped get news and requests for help to church members much more quickly. They also prepared ahead of time so they could bring much needed generators and pumps to flooded homes right after the storm and before government help arrived. Infinity NY Church's pastor, Dimas Salaberrios, helped organize church responses to 9/11, the Haiti earthquake, and Sandy, and knows first-hand just how vital the church's role is during disasters.
Ray Cannata, who started pastoring at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina, dealt with its aftermath for several years. "We healed ourselves by becoming healers," he said. "Our focus remains mission not self-protection. Moving toward the pain." He said this has helped his church stay focused on service despite long-lasting challenges from the storm.
Because natural disasters are common in their area, Cannata says his church is always preparing: every year they buy one or two more generators to use later. During their last storm, they had five member homes with generators, which they opened to people in need.
More recently, Pastor John Crowder of First Baptist Church in West, Texas, told Leadership Journal about the struggles he and his church have had since that disaster. Doubt, frustration, and the day-to-day inconveniences brought (ironically) by relief workers challenge the church's witness. He and his congregation need to steward resources sent to help, while remembering that God is bigger than their disaster.