Leading your community when disaster strikes
Just one day after Christmas, at least nine tornadoes ripped through my church’s community in Rowlett, Texas. The devastating storm turned just short of our church building, yet thousands of our friends and neighbors experienced terror, property damage and the complete destruction of their homes.
In the wake of such terrible tragedy, we’ve learned a lot about the needs of a community in crisis, the role of a church during such times and how we as leaders prepare and respond in even the darkest times.
Many United Methodist congregations, particularly in and around New Orleans where Hurricane Katrina caused so much damage, understand the importance of preparing to face unexpected crises.
The Louisiana Conference of The United Methodist Church quickly responded to our disaster in Texas by sending an early response team to help survivors begin the painful process of rebuilding their lives. They mobilized quickly, thanks to a disaster response plan written and refined over the past decade, which outlines spiritual care teams, long-term recovery and much more.
Our churches and districts must be prepared to respond to various disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, floods, acts of mass violence and other situations.
Here are five specific ways we give and receive by preparing for an effective response to events we pray never come.
1. Harness people's desire to do something.
Few social institutions are as equipped to organize volunteers as churches. People want to help, and church leaders can turn that goodwill into useful aid even when volunteers are more eager than may be helpful.
Organizing your group’s response and clearly communicating during a crisis is critical. Your church will be part of a larger effort, so it’s important to add harmony rather than discord.
Take safety precautions. Every hour volunteered by someone in your group is potentially valuable for receiving relief funds, so keeping records is important. Who will provide tools and materials, and how will they be marked for later retrieval?
These issues and more will need to be determined. A dedicated page on Facebook for people interested in helping will go a long way in addressing almost all important information.
2. Support civil authorities and gain credibility.
Volunteer groups operate within the framework of civil authorities leading the rescue effort. Disaster zones must be stabilized and secured before we can roll in.
By following the lead of local authorities, volunteers should prioritize the safety of people while gaining credibility with community leaders who are grateful for considerate support.
3. Engage in a ministry of presence.
When people experience tragedy, they don’t need words of advice or platitudes. What they usually need first and most is someone to sit and grieve with them.
As the hands and feet of Jesus, we find nothing as powerful as going to where hurting people are and showing them love by being in their presence. There is something so spiritual about sacrificing time in service and using our bodies physically to rebuild broken lives.
Not only are victims attracted to such selfless love, but other volunteers hoping to make a difference may also find such service to be the most spiritual experience they’ve had in some time.
4. Connect with others outside your church community.
It’s amazing how quickly bonds form among survivors and volunteers laboring alongside one another and survivors. In the days following the North Texas tornadoes, we worked with local leaders, members of nearby churches, a team of Muslims committed to disaster relief and many people who never attend a church of any kind. It’s been a joy to see individuals from the relief effort visit our church because of the example set by our attendees.
Some people in our communities have never encountered God or God’s people in any meaningful way. Worse, they may only have negative views of the church. Perhaps they’ve even suffered some sort of abuse at the hands of the church. Responding in love during their time of need is a powerful way to show authentic care from healing hands representing truth, light and love.
The best way to have an impact is to reach out in unconditional love to meet the needs of our neighbors. God’s light reflects brightest during the darkest times.
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5. Commit for the long haul.
Survivors of disasters, particularly the kind called “acts of God,” experience trauma of all sorts, including spiritual trauma and the questioning of why something so terrible would be allowed in their lives. We can minister to these people through prayer and presence.
Some survivors might be members of our local worship assemblies and need their church family in a big way. They may also have reason to keep us at a distance for some time, which we should honor as well.
Emotional recovery often takes years. Spiritual struggles can persist long after the trauma of physical damage and loss is resolved.
The physical relief effort is also likely to take a long time. That eager response by so many to help will wane after a couple of weeks. If you can keep your people motivated to show up as long as there is work to be done, your community will be grateful.
When disaster strikes, United Methodists respond with prayers and support. By preparing thoughtfully for events we hope never will occur, we position our churches to create a unique space in the community that will attract others through a ministry of presence, service and care. Search for disaster relief projects through United Methodist Committee on Relief and join the cause today.
Are these precautions worthwhile? As someone who just watched his local church community face such a tragedy, it’s worth it. None of us ever knows if our community will be next on the international news feeds because of a massive and unexpected disaster.
Our response is an opportunity to be the hands and feet of a caring Creator. Your neighbors may come to know God in a meaningful way by meeting your church members in their devastated world.
- United Methodist Committee on Relief Overview
- Learn more about UMCOR's U.S. Disaster Response Training
- UMCOR’s volunteer page
- When Disaster Hits, Churches Must Be Ready
- Top Four Worst – and Best – Ways to Help After a Disaster
- Prayers, Hymns, and Other Resources for Natural Disasters
— Clay Morgan is an author from Dallas, Texas who spent a decade teaching college courses in the social sciences before becoming a consultant in communications and organizational strategy. Clay enjoys writing at the intersection of culture and spirituality. He has done ministry with college students for years and loves finding creative ways to engage millennials.