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January 24, 2019Interviews, Leadership, Research

One-on-One with Jamie Aten on ‘A Walking Disaster’

"It is through our weakness that we are able to experience God’s strength more fully."
One-on-One with Jamie Aten on ‘A Walking Disaster’
Image: via Templeton Press/Canva

Ed: How did you first get involved in doing disaster work?

Jamie: I didn’t set out to do disaster work. While I was studying to be a psychologist, I had planned on studying rural mental health disparities. I took a job at the University of Southern Mississippi right out of graduate school in hopes of getting to help churches in underserved areas address mental health gaps. Then, just six days after my family and I moved into South Mississippi, Hurricane Katrina struck our community. I witnessed first-hand the important role that faith and churches play in times of disaster.

Within weeks I was studying faith and disaster resilience and supporting church recovery efforts.

Ed: In your book, you write about your personal disaster experience with cancer. Can you share some about that?

Jamie: At the age of 35 I was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. I was completely caught off guard. About a year before my diagnosis, I had seen a specialist about my symptoms but was misdiagnosed. Then, about a year later, the symptoms returned along with shooting pain in my legs and lower back.

The doctors discovered I had tumor in my colon and that it had spread to a mass sitting on a nerve bundle that was causing a lot of the discomfort. Learning I had cancer turned my world upside down. I was devastated.

When Katrina threatened, my family and I were able to evacuate. But what was so scary about cancer was that there was no way to evacuate. This time the disaster was happening inside me. By all accounts, I was a walking disaster. I ended up going through a year-long period of cancer treatments that included radiation, multiple rounds of chemotherapy, and surgery.

Ed: One of the unique aspects of your book is how you weave together insights not just from your cancer experience, but also your disaster work. Can you tell me more about what sort of disaster work you have been involved in that the book draws on?

Jamie: I spent several years researching and helping after Hurricane Katrina in South Mississippi and New Orleans. Since that time, I’ve helped research, train, and mobilize church leaders through disasters in 11 different countries.

In 2010, I was fortunate enough to join the faculty at Wheaton College. Shortly after I got to Wheaton, I founded the Humanitarian Disaster Institute, the country’s first faith-based academic disaster research center.

Our mission is to equip the church to prepare and care in a disaster-filled world. Our team doesn’t just study natural disasters. We’re also active in helping the church care for refugees. For example, my colleague Kent Annan just published a great new book on the topic titled You Welcomed Me: Loving Refugees and Immigrants Because God First Loved Us.

Some of our work has involved studying international civil conflicts. Over the last five years we have been engaged in studying and resourcing communities affected by mass shootings. We are also involved in raising awareness about human trafficking amidst disasters.

More recently, HDI launched a new M.A. in Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College to prepare the next generation of humanitarian and disaster professionals to lead with faith and humility, utilize evidence-based practice, and serve the most vulnerable and the church globally.

Ed: How is your health now?

Jamie: I’m so grateful to be able to share that it’s been 4 ½ years with no evidence of disease. I feel so thankful for each day I’ve had since ending my treatments. Yet, the road to recovery has been long and challenging.

I still struggle with some chronic side effects from my treatments. I’ve also had other complications that have arisen that has led to one or two hospitalizations a year since finishing treatments. I’ve also had multiple follow-up surgeries over this time to address issues that have emerged from my previous treatments.

But the good has outweighed the challenges. I am blessed to have more time with my family and continue the work to which I’ve been called.

Ed: What did battling cancer teach you about faith and resilience?

Jamie: This personal tragedy taught me more about suffering and adversity than I liked. However, this painful experience taught me spiritual and psychological lessons I don’t think I would have ever been able to learn from just my research.

My disaster work had taught me a lot about faith and resilience. But going through cancer helped me more deeply understand what I had been studying in disaster zones around the globe.

Going through cancer, I experienced God’s love and grace in a whole new way. I experienced God’s nearness and presence more deeply. I was regularly reminded that Christ understood my suffering at times when I felt alone.

I was also encouraged by how God ministered to me through my family, friends, colleagues, healthcare professionals, and sometimes even strangers.

A lot of what I learned from cancer challenged the way I previously thought about resilience. Some of the counterintuitive lessons I learned include the importance of finding hope, to be cautious of optimism, when you want help the least is when you need it most, that spiritual surren­der, rather than a passive act, is instead a willful act of trust, and what we need is spiritual fortitude, not just resilience.

Another major lesson I learned was that we can either let pain divide us or unite us. I remember reading some others books when I was going through treatments where the authors seemed to have it “all together.” This just furthered my sense of isolation.

I try to be vulnerable and share not just what went well, but also where I struggled, faltered, and made mistakes. I want to remind others that they are responding normally to an abnormal situation. Struggling is part of the journey and is not something to be ashamed of or romanticized.

And it is through our weakness that we are able to experience God’s strength more fully.

Ed: What do you hope people will take away from reading your book?

Jamie: I’m prayerful that A Walking Disasterwill provide others facing hardships with biblical and scientific insights for enduring and navigating life’s disasters. I also want this book to help those walking alongside loved ones who are suffering.

Throughout, I share examples from my personal experience, from disaster research, and biblical examples of how to care for those in need. Overall, my hope is that others will be reminded that even in our suffering God is faithful—and will redeem our pain and hurts—be it this life or the next.

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One-on-One with Jamie Aten on ‘A Walking Disaster’