HELP AND HOPE: Disaster Preparedness and Response Tools for Congregations. Edited by Amy Gopp and Brandon Gilvin. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2014. Xii + 163 pages.
I’ve experienced earthquakes and I’ve watched as a city almost collapsed under accumulated debt. Many others have experienced fires, hurricanes, mass shootings, and tornados. Disaster comes in many forms, but the question is, how should the church respond? There are, of course, theological responses to be offered or at least considered. People often wonder how a loving God could let a disaster happen. Most likely, no final answer can be given that will satisfy all, but the church can reach out and bind up the wounds and offer a hopeful presence in the midst of disaster and suffering. Indeed, the first order of business is reaching out to those in need with compassion and support.
When disaster strikes local communities must discern a path forward. Local officials step in to make sure that people get to safety, emergency support is given, and when everyone is safe and accounted for then they turn toward long term recovery. The faith community is often at the forefront of these efforts. They provide financial support, volunteers, and moral support. There is, it seems, a natural impulse to want to help, but responses can be helpful or hindrances. Knowing how to be helpful rather than be a hindrance requires some thoughtful reflection and planning. We want to offer compassion and hope. We don’t want to get in the way.
What the church needs, therefore, is a manual to help it make good decisions. That manual is now available thanks to Amy Gopp and Brandon Gilvin, the two editors of Help and Hope, a brief but densely packed handbook for churches that was produced with the help of Church World Service. The contributors to the volume come from a variety of faith communities, though quite a number are Disciples of Christ – like the two editors. Amy Gopp, who formerly served as Director of Week of Compassion (Disciples of Christ relief agency) and now leads Church World Service (an ecumenical relief agency affiliated with the National Council of Churches) is joined in this venture by Brandon Gilvin, her former colleague with Week of Compassion, which Brandon serves as Associate Director.
The two editors have substantial experience in the area of disaster relief, and so they are well equipped to gather together the materials and persons to create this tool for congregations. The book itself is composed of twenty-four chapters organized around six sections.
Section one of the book (with four chapters) is a reminder that the Unexpected is Expected. Disasters happen and churches need to be ready to pitch in and serve. The chapters in this section deal with the challenges faced by affected congregations to the need to respond to international disasters. The chapter on stewardship, written by Johnny Wray, the interim Director of Week of Compassion, is an important contribution. He offers an important word of advice to congregations – “stay, pray, pay.” Many feel the need to go to where the action is, but more often than not it’s not your body that is needed, but your money. So, stay put – wait for the right time to go and help. In the mean time, prayers are important. And perhaps most importantly – there is the need for cash resources. And giving before a disaster occurs means that agencies like Church World Service and Week of Compassion can respond immediately.
Section two, entitled “When Anderson Cooper is in Town: Right after the Disaster,” focuses on the immediate aftermath of a disaster. What happens when phones don’t work? How do you deal with the media? There is a chapter on Sandy Hook as well. Finally, there is a chapter on volunteering. Many want to go and get their hands dirty. Usually such volunteer efforts will be available several months after the event itself. If one wishes to volunteer it’s important to not just show up on the site – especially right after a disaster. Josh Baird writes of the problem of unaffiliated or spontaneous volunteers, who often become a distraction to those focusing on aiding those in need:
The fact is that just about anybody who shows up to help arrives needing something. Not everyone thinks about whether there will be places to buy gas, food, and water in a disaster zone. Many people arrive without tools, rather assuming they will be made available. Almost everyone arrives needing a place to stay and something to do (p. 47).
In other words, you are now one more refugee needing help!
The third section, entitled “Once the Cameras Leave: Long-Term Recovery” provides guidance on what to do for the long term. Once the media loses interest, the real work begins. Here is where volunteers can be of the greatest help – if they’re working with or through agencies on the ground. But even before a disaster strikes, communities and congregations can prepare themselves for such an eventuality. They can create disaster plans and disaster response teams. They can get to know the local agencies and make relationships with them. When major disasters hit – like Katrina – it is possible that mission stations will be created to aid in long term support. After all, volunteers need places to stay, food to eat, tools and supplies to use, and experienced guides to help them in their work. Susan Lasalle describes a mission station as “a place where the body of Christ comes together to serve a community devastated by a disaster” (p. 64).
Faith communities can be good sources of financial support and volunteers, including mission teams from outside the affected area. They can also provide an eye in the storm. That is, they can provide the community with a sense of calm and emotional support. Once again, it’s important to prepare beforehand. Know your strengths – your gifts – and the available partners.
The concluding sections form a Congregational Toolkit. The first section looks at community resources and the second lifts up worship resources. There is guidance on how to build networks and use community resources. There is a helpful list of tasks, systems, and supplies for preparing congregations to face disasters, and a chapter on making use of denominational agencies and parachurch agencies. The checklists will be of great help, as are the lists of reputable denominational and parachurch organizations. In the section on worship resources, we find a bible study guide for a four week series of studies, worship materials, and two chapters that help preachers respond. This final section is designed to help congregations become proactive in their stewardship, volunteerism, and spiritual life.
I think every pastor should read this book. Then the book should be shared with persons dealing with the various areas of ministry discussed in the books twenty-four chapters. Being aware of the potential for disaster locally and at a distance is key, because most congregations want to be of help, but they really don’t want to be like the pastor described in the book that calls up a pastor in the affected town and informs him that this pastor has a semi loaded and ready to depart. The pastor in the affected area says – stay put, but the “helping pastor” doesn’t seem to understand. One of the things we learn in reading this book is that affected areas often end up with huge amounts of useless materials – sometimes old worn out clothes and appliances. If you want to help – first find out what the need is – then provide it. Don’t assume anything, lest you become a nuisance!
If there is one area of disaster relief not addressed in the book, it is the aftermath of an economic disaster. It’s not nearly as sexy as a natural disaster. The people experiencing ongoing economic disasters are often seen as deserving the lot they find themselves in. Thus, such disasters fall through the cracks. My concern about this issue stems from my own involvement in starting just such a ministry in the city of Detroit. I think that in many ways ministries like Gospel in Action Detroit or Motown Mission (also in Detroit) can be good places of volunteer service, even as financial support goes to the immediate relief of natural disasters. Both kinds of situations require our attention, but let us not forget the economic issues of our time.
I know both Amy and Brandon. I’ve had important conversations with them about disaster relief and preparedness in general and responding to economic disasters in particular. I have great regard for them and their work. Therefore, even with my caveat, I want to say – this is a small but important book that the church needs to take up and read and act accordingly!