Faith in Times of Disaster

Susanne Gilmore | August 17, 2013

CWS's Susanne Gilmore with David Myers and Jono Anzalone. Photo: CWS

CWS’s Susanne Gilmore with David Myers and Jono Anzalone. Photo: CWS

In my work as a CWS Emergency Response Specialist, one of my main “talking points” is the important role of local faith communities in disaster preparedness and recovery.

So when I learned that Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska would hold a statewide summit August 9-10 on the role of faith communities in disaster recovery and response, I promptly signed up – then drove to Lincoln from my home base of Manhattan, Kansas.

I was pleased to find myself in the company of nearly 95 church leaders hungry to learn how they could participate in disaster response. And I was excited to meet Executive Marilyn Mecham and other leaders from Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska (IMN), most of whose 12 member denominations are also CWS member denominations.

IMN has been involved in responding to tornados, ice storms, floods, wind, drought and other disasters for more than 40 years. IMN is a member of the state “VOAD” (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster), which puts it in active collaboration with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), American Red Cross, Salvation Army and local long-term recovery groups across the state to prepare for and respond to disasters.

In times of disaster, Interchurch Ministries can communicate quickly with local churches across the state. And it puts its Rural Response Hotline at FEMA’s disposal, making it easy for disaster-affected people to register their need for assistance.

“Many towns across Nebraska lack their own school or health clinic, but all but a few have at least one church,” Marilyn Mecham commented. I expect it’s the same in every state. When disaster strikes a community, people often gravitate to the closest church to exchange information, seek missing loved ones, and get spiritual and emotional support, shelter, or a hot meal.

At the Nebraska conference, the keynote speaker illustrated that phenomenon with a story. He was in his car, following a convoy taking food aid to Moore, Okla., after the May tornado. Somehow he lost sight of the convoy.

He reckoned he should head to the Joint Field Office – the control center out of which FEMA and the state were coordinating their response. Along the way, he passed a large church with hundreds of cars parked outside and stopped in. The church was filled with tornado survivors who had come to get assistance, tell their stories and be together.

By the way, the keynote speaker was David L. Myers, a Mennonite pastor now serving as Director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Other speakers included the Rev. John A. Robinson, Jr., Associate for Disaster Response for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and Josh Baird, Director of Disciples Volunteering.

There is no congregation too small to be involved in disaster preparedness and response. First and foremost, every church should develop its own disaster plan and help its members develop the same.

Congregations of any size can assemble CWS Emergency Cleanup Buckets, Baby Care Kits, Hygiene Kits and School Kitsfor disaster survivors. And they can contribute money to ecumenical and denominational disaster response work.

Churches in or near disaster-affected areas can open their doors to the community, serve as a staging area for material aid, and later house volunteers who come to help clean up and rebuild homes.

Very importantly, they can also join their community’s disaster response committee. For it’s the faith community that will respond after donations have ceased and FEMA moves on to the next disaster. It’s the faith community that is there until everyone’s needs are met. It is the faith community that offers hope through action.

Susanne Gilmore, CWS Emergency Response Specialist