“I never thought this would happen to me!” I have lost count of the number of times I have heard that phrase. Almost without fail, this is the gut response of those who have experienced a disaster. No one ever expects the tornado to rip through their town, and certainly not through their very property. No one ever seems to anticipate the heavy rains to rise to levels that would render their home unlivable. No one pictures themselves in the eye of a storm like Sandy, or Katrina, or Andrew. Natural disasters happen. They are a part of life. But we seem to be under the spells of either tremendous optimism or utter denial when it comes to believing we will be personally affected by disasters. Somehow we never believe it’s going to be us.
When I began my previous ministry with Week of Compassion, the relief, refugee, and development fund of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), it didn’t occur to me, either, just how often I would live through—albeit through the experiences of others—not only natural disasters, but disasters of all kinds. The administrative role I played often was placed on the back burner behind the more critical role I played as pastoral presence. Because it’s true: we never think it’s going to happen to us. Whether caught in the ruthless violence of resource wars in the Congo, the aftermath of the most devastating earthquake in Haiti’s history, the chronic poverty that existed before that earthquake in Haiti, or in a classroom in suburban America where gunfire has just taken the lives of students and teachers alike, I have found that we as human beings are both incredibly vulnerable but usually just as resilient. To be with people in their time of greatest need, regardless of the type of disaster or crisis, is one of the greatest honors I’ve known in my ministry.
Thus, in an earnest attempt to help us become more proactive and prepared for the disasters that we never expect but that always occur, the idea for Help and Hope: Disaster Preparedness and Response Tools for Congregations was born. We needed a resource, a toolkit or sorts, a guidebook of first-hand, personal accounts of how others responded to what I now call the “expected unexpected.” This book is chock-full of practical tips for individuals and, more importantly, congregations and faith communities to consider to become more poised to respond when disaster strikes. Because the life of a faith community is spiritual in nature, based on common religious values and principles, I have found that it is truly the most fitting context for helping its members prepare, respond, comfort, and then try to understand what happened. How do we make sense of tragedy? And the next most commonly asked question after “Why did this happen to me?” is “Why would God let this happen?” This age-old question of theodicy still stumps us. While Help and Hope does not fully answer that question either, it does point us in some directions for exploration and reflection. It is within our church homes, our families of faith, that I hope and pray we can all safely ask these questions in the context of a loving community who will receive them and struggle with us.
As a relatively new member of the CWS staff, I come with years of experience as a denominational representative on the Social and Economic Development Committee, the Emergency Response Program Committee, eventually the Development and Humanitarian Assistance Committee, and the Immigration and Refugee Program Committee. In each case, we gathered together to determine the best ways to respond to the needs of the people we have been called to serve. Ideally, we do so ecumenically, taking into consideration what each member has to offer and where each adds value and expertise. In all that we do at CWS, we do it to help others prepare for, mitigate, and deal with the disasters of hunger, poverty, conflict, war, injustice, oppression, and displacement. We are those who accompany communities to expect the unexpected, to offer the tools necessary to cope with the unexpected, and to stand with our partners and those we serve in ways that honor both their vulnerability and their resilience. This is not only important work, it is sacred work. It is still my honor to be engaged in this sacred work, this ministry, as part of the CWS family. No matter where disaster strikes, we are there, present in the local and global webs of people, partners, and programs we have woven throughout the past seven decades, ready to embrace the next person or community who says, “I never thought this would happen to me…”
The Rev. Amy Gopp serves as the Director of Member Relations and Pastoral Care for CWS. She is the co-editor of Help and Hope, published by Chalice Press. Proceeds of the book help support the transformative work of CWS.