“But we’re trying to help, for Christ’s sake!”
Tapping the potential of faith-based organizations in the wake of disaster
Over the course of the years, I have had the opportunity to witness quite a few churches operate in the wake of a disaster. Before getting too far into this article, I want to say that there are many faith-based organizations that have done a tremendous job of responding to disasters, but those are not the ones I am addressing here.
I remember some of my early programs included discussions about what I called “chaotic response”. These references were regarding the groups of youth or volunteers from different churches that, with hearts of gold, would deploy themselves into disaster zones only to become a part of the problem and not the solution. One of my favorite anecdotes was that of a church that, with broken gas lines hissing all over town, took it upon themselves to set up a large number of BBQ grills in a parking lot to feed the storm victims…
The government is much more politically correct when describing this activity; they call it “spontaneous response”. I still refer “chaotic”.
I will never forget one experience I had this summer. As my team worked debris removal in the heart of Joplin’s “ground zero”, we were encountering every type of debris imaginable from hospital waste to broken glass, from shredded sheet metal to twisted power cables. We had several pieces of heavy equipment operating in a few acres of space and over 60 workers. Our team, no strangers to deployments, were geared from head to toe with hard hats, steel toed boots, long pants, safety glasses and masks.
It was in the midst of this that a large white bus pulled up…
There was window paint decorating the bus that exclaimed in no uncertain terms what had brought the bus to this place for on each window was emblazoned messages like “To Joplin with love” and “God’s Army”. As the bus came to a stop, the doors were flung open and I had my first view of what was to come. The youth leader was the first out of the bus…
He was a large man, in his mid-to-late-twenties with a goatee and what looked like a middle-aged version of a Mohawk. The Hawaiian shirt was a great look for him, but the pale-purple sandals really caught my eye.
There is an old saying, “As the leader goes, so go the people”. Never a more true statement here. The entire bus was packed with young people, all in shorts, light t-shirts and baseball caps. They were all wearing running shoes or crocks and in one hand, they each had sun-screen; in the other, yard rakes.
I wanted to alert the field hospital immediately just to let them know they were about to have a run!
What is the difference between a “Missions Trip” and a “Deployment”? The answer is almost obvious.
Missions trips take place every year and can range from puppet shows on the street to trips overseas to spread the gospel or a message of hope. Deployment is a military word and refers to the transfer of soldiers to an area where the purpose is to overcome an obstacle or enemy.
While many churches and faith-based organizations will schedule missions trips to disaster-struck areas in order to rebuild homes or churches, teams deployed into disaster zones need to be properly deployed and need to be deployed with a knowledge base of training that allows them to be of use where they are needed the most.
Simple understanding of the phases of disaster, basic research, and trained people can make all the difference.
Now, I am not saying this group should not have come to Joplin. What I am saying is that too often I see faith-based organizations step into situations where they have no business being simply because they have allowed the “separation of church and state” to overshadow common sense. As I visit churches, I find that the separation of church and state has become almost a “comfort zone” in which we exist; a world where churches operate on their rules while the government operates on its rules. We have to be willing to embrace the concept that this separation cannot apply to deploying. There is a National Response Plan that includes us all as American’s, church-going or not.
This particular group was geared to work in a food tent, to be distributing water or to be assisting at the City’s base of operations. There was no way this group should have been in that “ground zero” area.
Aside from the liability they immediately became the minute they stepped off their bus, they were immediately not operating within the confines of any authority; a poor witness for a faith-based organization.
While large denominations, for the most part, have phenomenal training programs, it is still the local churches and the independent churches that hit the ground the most, and it is in lack of training that representatives of God can quickly bring hell to a town.
I am not discounting the value of missions by any means. Many of our members are involved in missions and we wholeheartedly endorse the concept of missions, but we believe that the ministry performed by certain teams comes through the professionalism, the efficiency, and the timing of the response.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s Disaster Relief organization states “When humanity is judged, one of the decisive factors will be how well we responded to the needs of our neighbors.” It is this belief and philosophy that has made the Convention’s work some of the finest ever seen in the wake of disasters.
“But Eddy, if I start requiring all kinds of training for my people in order to go we’ll lose volunteers!”
“My people don’t have time to train AND respond so we take what we can get!”
I believe there is a biblical basis for requiring your church members to train and prepare to respond rather than becoming “chaotic response”.
It is in the Bible’s book of Nehemiah that we find our original blueprint for this avenue of ministry we call disaster response.
Although the current books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book, and were originally just chapters called “Ezra I and Ezra II”, the chapters were eventually split into two separate books. The book of Ezra now contains a portion of the history of how Jerusalem came to ruins, but in Nehemiah, now that since 1560 is its own book, reads like the story of a deployment.
Nehemiah was a spiritual leader who had the gifting and wisdom to seek practical solutions. We find in the beginning of the account that Nehemiah was involved in government. He worked for the government. When Nehemiah saw the ruins of Jerusalem, he chose to act. It says in Chapter One that he wept at the first report.
Let me point out that this is where the church excels. Nehemiah’s heart was broken and he wept. I believe that what makes churches so valuable and gives them more potential than any other type of organization is that the infusion of faith into the human spirit ignites passion and it is that passion that can be the catalyst for large movements.
Nehemiah approached the king and discussed the current situation with the king, very much like our C4LDRT (Chasing4Life Disaster Response Team) leadership has briefings with government agencies now.
The king, in Chapter 2 asks Nehemiah what his goals are in order to hold Nehemiah to a form of accountability, and Nehemiah presents his missions statement and purpose, adding that he would like permission to respond to the disaster.
This is a key element in how we should respond. Never self-deploy, and never enter the gates of a city without permission.
The account continues with even more insight for us as Nehemiah requests of the king a few things; the first is the permission. The second request is that the king give him certificates so that upon deployment, Nehemiah will have the ability to operate freely in the disaster zone.
In the same manner as Nehemiah, the church needs to require of its members that they be constantly educating themselves and acquiring certificates of training from entities such as FEMA and DHS. Simple online courses offered for free from DHS and FEMA not to mention dozens of others can be a great source of education and understanding for any faith-based organization’s volunteers. If a church expects to deploy alongside fire departments, there should be no difference in understanding between the two entities or they will not be able to function together.
Nehemiah gets his certificates, and has another request for the king; grant funding.
While the scripture only briefly touches on this, the story says that Nehemiah was “granted” what he asked for, and this included even security provided for by the king’s soldiers. My point here is that once Nehemiah was NIMS compliant, he suddenly became a respected entity. It was obvious that the king no longer was seeing Nehemiah as just another “Bible-thumper”, and Nehemiah was having doors opened for him!
You can see the precedent set for churches in disaster here; there is a great value to be placed on pre-arranged relationships and “permissions”.
It is only at this point that Nehemiah can deploy, and as the story progresses, we see that he enters the city, begins to work, and inspires those around him who marvel at his efficiency, professionalism and authority.
As the year comes to a close, we have to look ahead. 2012, (Mayan calendar considered or not), we are sure to see more disasters that will require massive amounts of volunteers. The faith-based population is the largest population in the United States and therefore, could be the largest work-force in the wake of disaster, but we have a responsibility to ready ourselves, get trained, become educated and follow in the footsteps of Nehemiah.
If you are in church leadership, I encourage you to seek out training opportunities such as CERT for your people. Meet with local authorities to determine what you might do to create NIMS compliant response teams within your fellowship. Make your next bake sale or fundraiser a source for purchasing hard hats. From the little things to the big things, you can become a part of a system that needs you, but needs you to do it right.
As for those of you in governmental positions, I have another word today…
Seek out faith-based leaders in your community and include them. The passion and numbers of the faith-based community is a source we do not tap into often enough and if we intend on becoming more efficient and effective, we need to utilize this vast and tremendous resource.
Coming up… why don’t churches have tornado drills? We’ll be looking at more faith-based emergency management issues.