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Disasters call for special outreach

SUMMARY: In recent months, we've seen a massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Closer to home, the United States experienced its deadliest tornado season in decades, and massive flooding has displaced thousands. Recovery from Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake continues. Your congregation may feel overwhelmed by the need following major disasters, but their desire to help will be great.

Here are some ways your congregation or community can provide assistance or support. 

Give a sense of the aftermath.
Four-dimensional experiences involve people as nothing else does. Create a disaster-like setting outside a mall or at a local festival. Knock a lightly constructed "house" off its foundation or scatter "memories," such as photos, a wedding dress, toys, Christmas decorations and so forth. Give people a glimpse of the reality people face in the aftermath of a disaster. At the same time, ask them to give donations for relief or, if feasible, to volunteer to assist survivors.

Tap into United Methodist resources.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is The United Methodist Church's disaster-relief organization. UMCOR provides ways to help people all over the world, including in the U.S. South and Japan. It features current news about disasters, devotions and reflections, bulletin inserts, missionary updates and more. You also can give money through the UMCOR website. One hundred percent of donations goes to the designated cause. UMCOR is a great starting point for any church to get involved in relief efforts or to learn more about the disaster.

Go digital.
Create a Facebook group where congregants and their family and friends can post updates and share their thoughts on the disaster. You may be surprised what happens. A woman in Tennessee found a man's photo in her yard - hundreds of miles from the tornado-devastated areas in Mississippi. She created a Facebook page and soon discovered who the man was, that he had died in the tornado and that his family would be grateful for the photo, which she then mailed to them. The New York Times reported on the page, which has become a lost-and-found site for tornado survivors.

Offer grief counseling.
If your church has congregants, friends, relatives or community members who lost their lives or property because of a disaster, offer grief counseling. Contact your local hospital or funeral home for information on local grief specialists. Consider hosting a support group for survivors. You may want to start the support group a month or two after a disaster, when the initial cleanup is over and realities and frustrations of the long-term effects are emerging.

Involve the community.
Combine efforts with those of other churches, community organizations and local businesses. Place donation boxes around the area to collect cash. Collect specific items only if people at the disaster site request them. Assemble cleaning buckets, health kits and other relief kits at youth rallies or district meetings of United Methodist Women. UMCOR provides detailed information on assembling and sending kits. Host a benefit concert, theater performance, art show or dinner with proceeds going toward disaster relief. A change race is an easy and fun way to raise money. Have community groups compete to see who can collect the most change. The local winner gets the glory, but the real winners are the disaster survivors who receive the assistance.

Support missionaries around the world.
Organizations like UMCOR advise against sending additional personnel to help with relief efforts, unless and until volunteers are invited. Inexperienced help sometimes does more harm than good. If you know a missionary serving the disaster area, provide support with prayers, donations, care packages and encouraging emails or letters. If you cannot contact your missionary, don't panic. Communication in disaster areas can be spotty – especially from the field. For information on United Methodist -supported missionaries, visit the General Board of Global Ministries website. You might also contact your missionary's home church, friends or family members to confirm his or her safety and ask advice on how to help.

Contact your Volunteers in Mission coordinator for information on the appropriate steps for sending a team to assist with disaster cleanup.   

Don't forget.
As the news fades and months go by, it's human nature to forget about the disaster and the lives changed. Yet, the people who suffered losses are still dealing daily with the situation. Note the six-month and one-year anniversary of the disaster on your church calendar. Check how the disaster area is recovering. Ask what survivors need today and share that with your congregation.