Before I became a disaster psychologist, I was a youth pastor.
My first job in ministry was at a small, rural church near the Indiana-Illinois state line. It didn’t take me long to realize I was in over my head. Nothing had prepared me for some of the serious struggles the youth in our community were facing. After a couple of years, I decided to go on to graduate school in psychology to better prepare for life’s disasters, like the trauma and grief I had seen in the lives of some of my students.
After I graduated, our family moved to South Mississippi for my first college teaching gig. Our first Sunday there, we attended a church service down the road from our house. I still vividly remember the pastor solemnly walking to the pulpit, and in a slow Southern drawl saying, “If you remember Camille, you’ll know what I’m about to say.”
The pastor went on to describe how the killer storm Hurricane Camille had devastated Mississippi in the late 1960s. He then warned about a rapidly approaching hurricane that some thought might be even worse: Hurricane Katrina.
I remembered all the post-9/11 public service ads that stressed how one common household item was crucial to everyone’s preparedness kit. As soon as I got home, I started rummaging through our drawers and unopened boxes to look for this lifesaving resource. Then I found it. The holy grail of preparedness, or so I thought: duct tape!
I was standing in the living room looking out our window, gripping that duct tape. I knew a threat was rapidly approaching, but all I could think was, Now what?
Once again, I was in over my head. Nothing had prepared me for the devastation that was about to rip through our community. Within weeks of Katrina’s landfall, I began reaching out to pastors to study how churches were responding. Twelve years later, with trips across the globe and too many disasters to list, I’m still studying disasters. During this time I’ve also weathered my own personal disaster of facing cancer, too.
Pastors I work with often ask me, “What’s the biggest disaster threat facing the church today?” Here’s what I’ve concluded: The biggest threat facing the church isn’t a disaster event—it’s how people in the church think about disasters. The way you and your church think about disasters will determine what actions you will take to prepare and care in a disaster-filled world.
I don’t say this to minimize the threat or impact of recent disasters. I’ve never seen a storm like Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricanes to be tracked, which poses immediate danger. Recently Hurricane Harvey struck the United States, becoming one of the costliest natural disasters in our country’s history. Countless other disasters like the wilfires in Montana and the flooding in South Asia are happening. These all pose real threats.
Yet, when I consider disasters within a broader context—within the grand scheme of past and possible events—it’s how we think about disasters that keeps me up at night. Too many pastors and congregations have bought into ideas about disasters that just aren’t true. Embracing these myths puts more people in harm’s way, risks diminishing our Christian witness, and threatens our ability to act as the hands and feet of Christ.
Myth 1: “The odds of a disaster impacting my church or community are slim.”
Disasters are actually happening more and more. You may have thought you were just imagining it, but you aren’t.
A couple of years after Hurricane Katrina, I spoke to a group of pastors in the Mississippi Delta about the importance of preparing for disasters. They assured me hurricanes wouldn’t travel so far north, so they weren’t sure why I was there. I had just started to respond when the noise of a passing train forced me to pause. After it passed, I asked the pastors what was on the train. They told me it regularly transported chemicals and oil from the coast to points further north. They had never noticed the risk on the rails in their own backyard. Sadly, a few years later a flood devastated their community.
Since the 1980s there has been a roughly 400-percent increase in natural disasters globally. Granted, not all of these events are Katrina-sized disasters, but a disaster is still a disaster. Unnatural disasters like terrorist attacks, mass shootings, and technical disaster (e.g., chemical spills) are also on the rise.
Despite these statistics, the fact is, we tend to be bad at estimating risk. So bad, in fact, that experts describe our response as the “ostrich effect.” Just as the name implies, research has shown that people tend to mistakingly ignore real potential threats.
On the other hand, some people overestimate specific threats, and live in fear of large-scale disasters like a tornado or terrorist attack, despite the fact that more people in the United States die annually from heat waves and snowstorms.
Disasters are happening in places that may not have been at risk traditionally. We can no longer rely on the heuristic that previous disasters are a good indicator of the sorts of disasters a community may face in the future. This rule of thumb isn’t as reliable as it once was. Changes in extreme weather pattens, sea-level rise, social tensions, global unrest, economic disparities, population growth, and shifts where people live are just a few reasons why.
But even the most unprepared churches need not give up hope when disaster hits. When a massive flood submerged the building his church was planning to remodel and launch as a new campus under five feet of water last summer in Baton Rouge, Healing Place Church campus pastor Ryan Frith described the experience as “shocking” and “surreal.” “Never would we have imagined a flood like this happening,” he said. “Nobody on our team had done disaster relief before or had even worked in a warehouse.” But after the water receded, they were able to turn their church campus into a distribution center, cooking meals and handing out fresh groceries. For a month and a half, they were able to reach thousands of people a day through all of the activity on the property. “We truly got to see God take all things and work them together for good. Our plan was to start having church, but God’s plan was for us to first be the church.”
Myth 2: “Disasters don’t discriminate.”
There is some truth to this. No matter who you are, or how much money you have, disasters can impact anyone. However, disasters do not affect all people equally. They disproportionally impact the socially and economically vulnerable.
Disasters are one of the biggest moral and biblical justice issues facing the church and society.
Disasters often magnify injustices by putting a spotlight on disparities already present in a community. I was involved with a program to help traumatized children after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. I had helped in Haiti years before. But it wasn’t until after the disaster that I learned of a far less visible disaster—Restavek—a Haitian cultural form of modern-day child slavery. The earthquake made this unthinkable practice even more prevalent. The earthquake had left many children and youth orphaned, and others with families that were no longer able to care for them. Human traffickers rushed to exploit the situation.
The poor, medically fragile, very old, young, and minorities suffer more than others. For example, some immigrants and refugees may live in fear of deportation, and as a result, might not ask for the help they need to rebound. Elderly people in high crime areas live in fear of being harmed and may not open their door to people they don’t know, even if those people are trying to help them survive a heat wave. People living in poverty may not have the resources to evacuate and get to safety when that means paying for extra gas and a hotel.
People become vulnerable for a wide variety of circumstances, ranging from age to job status. The most vulnerable and underserved also tend to live in less prepared areas and lack the resources to rebuild what disasters destroy. Thus, it normally takes them longer to recover than people with more resources and social connections. According to the Conservation of Resources stress model, disasters cause “spirals of loss.” It takes more resources, time, money, energy, and social support to recover, and for the most vulnerable, this is a debt from which they may never be free. However, our team’s most recent study found even when disasters lead to loss of basic survival resources (e.g., food), drawing on spiritual resources helps protect survivors’ psychological resources (e.g., hope, optimism).
When a low-income apartment building close to Wheaton Bible Church in Wheaton, Illinois, burned down on a Sunday morning six years ago, pastor of community life Chris McElwee was able to pivot an existing ministry in the complex and mobilize the church immediately. As the fire was being put out, they started helping the residents deal with immediate and future needs. “Our church already had a presence in the community through an afterschool program we started, and through the case management and ESL programs we provided to this complex. I think the key to us doing so well in this crisis was the relationships we had with the stake holders before the crisis hit. We had already established trust with the community. Relationships are the key. Knowing everyone ahead of time sped up the way we could respond.”
And this experience created future ministry opportunities, as well. “We continue to serve the community even though the fire is a distant memory,” McElwee says. “Responding well certainly deepened our relationships and let the community know we are a credible resource.”
If the church is to pursue disaster justice we must do better at living out the teachings of . We need to do more than just respond to disasters; we must also tackle the underlying injustices that put the vulnerable at greater risk.
Myth 3: “There’s not enough time—or this isn’t the right time—for my church to start thinking about disaster ministry.”
There’s actually no better time than this very moment to start thinking about disaster ministry. Once a disaster strikes, it’s much more difficult to plan a response. Even if you are staring down the crosshairs of Hurricane Irma or recently weathered Hurricane Harvey, I want to encourage you to take action now.
In a recent Humanitarian Disaster Institute study, our team found most pastors and churches weren’t ready when Hurricane Katrina struck, but that they still made a significant positive impact in helping their congregations and communities recover. We also found that when time is running out, churches can still play a vital role in helping their congregations and communities prepare, like utilizing crisis communication strategies, echoing evacuation messaging, and taking steps to minimize risk. Maybe your church has been caught off guard by recent disasters. Rather than focus on what wasn’t done, prayerfully attend to what can still be done, no matter where you are in the disaster life cycle (i.e., preparedness, immediate response, long-term recovery). Your church is actually more prepared for disaster ministry than you may realize.
Don’t think of disaster ministry as an “extra.” It’s a part of the church’s DNA.
A great way to begin, even if you are reading these amidst being evacuated from your community, is to start by thinking of ways to pivot the ministries that God has already blessed in your church. If you have a strong children’s ministry, begin there. Does your church already deliver meals to the elderly? Then that’s where your church should start.
If a disaster strikes in your community, people are going to come to you and your church for help, even if it’s leveled. There are several reasons people you may have never met before are going to seek out your church. Disasters cause people to ask a lot of big questions about God. The church is the place where survivors can find true hope, meaning, and long-term spiritual care.
There may also be people in your church who feel called to building your church’s disaster ministry into something bigger, given the green light and some space. Sharon Davis, executive director of Oakdale Community Development Corporation (OCDC) at Oakdale Covenant Church in Chicago, attended our Disaster Ministry Conference and immediately went to her pastor about starting a disaster ministry. He gave her the go-ahead and helped her assemble a team that immediately got to work figuring out the specific risks in their community and how their church was equipped to speak into them. They found that the church’s large population of dementia patients from nearby retirement communities had very unique health and safety risks that they needed to be better trained on and prepared for. Now Oakdale has even stronger relationships with this community, having demonstrated concern for their needs and a willingness to help in a tangible way.
By building relationships and ministries that already exsist in your church, whether you realize it or not, you're building disaster resilience.
Though disasters may reveal inconsistences in our thoughts and injustices in the communities we call home, disaster ministry reveals God’s love, mercy, and grace. God has called his people to care for those in need, and where there are disasters, there is an immediate and pressing need. His commandment to bring good news and healing to those suffer is clear. As Christians we are created in the image of a loving, merciful, and gracious God, whose Son taught us to open our hearts and to use our talents in service of the kingdom. If we start thinking about disasters differently, it just might help you and your church to more effectively reduce harm during a disaster, save lives, and extend your ministry to those who need help the most.
Dr. Jamie D. Aten is a disaster psychologist and the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois. His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook and Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma. In 2016 he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion award at the White House. You can follow Jamie on Twitter at @drjamieaten or jamieaten.com.