The Injustice of Disasters

David Boan and Jamie Aten

This piece was originally published on Resilire Blog on December 30, 2015.

Though disasters reveal injustices, disaster ministries reveal God’s love, mercy, and grace. Read five steps every congregation should take to care for the most vulnerable.

Did you know many large-scale disasters often end up causing or contributing to other less visible disasters? After the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, we started working with several partners in Port-au-Prince to care for vulnerable children. Though the earthquake made international headlines, we found that few people are aware of the less visible disaster of Restavek—a Haitian cultural form of modern-day child slavery.

Restavek children are often sent by their families to live with a host family in hopes of a better life. In many cases these children wind up serving as indentured servants and also become victims of abuse. Because of the earthquake, there has been a major increase in the human trafficking and the abuse of Restavek children. As a result, many Haitian churches are beginning to take a stand against the practice of Restavek and are mobilizing as a source of biblical justice. Had it not been for the earthquake, we may have never had our eyes opened to this injustice.

An Opportunity for the Church

Like our work in Haiti, our work around the globe has taught us much about the injustice of disasters. In fact, at its most basic level, disaster ministry is about justice. You may have heard it said, “Disasters don’t discriminate.” There is some truth to this. No matter who you are, or how much money you have, disasters impact everyone.

The longer we have been doing this research, the more aware we have become of how disasters reveal injustices. The poor, fragile, very old and young, and the people with the fewest resources and connections are at far greater risk, and have a more difficult time recovering than others. Those most vulnerable not only suffer more of the consequences of a disaster, they suffer for a longer time. And here lies an opportunity for the church—an opportunity to care for the most vulnerable.

People become more vulnerable due to a wide variety of circumstances—everything from age to the type of job people hold can be a factor. Those who are most vulnerable include the poor, the very old and very young, single parents with young children, and those who are medically fragile.

The church is God’s agent to address injustice in the world, and disasters reveal the need for the church to be engaged in the community and correct injustice. Disasters reveal the people who suffer from inequality, and lack of care.

The church is uniquely positioned to care for its congregation and the community around them. This is a community bearing witness to the work of Christ through relationships, building trust by seeking the best for others. This trust means the church has, or can have, relationships with people that agencies or outside groups do not have.

For example, immigrant workers often live in fear of deportation, and so do not ask for help, and certainly do not talk to government agencies. Elderly people in high crime areas live in fear of being harmed and may not open their door to people they do not know, even if those people are trying to help them survive a heat wave. Elderly people in tornado territories may need help to move to secure areas, but may not know where to find that help. Each of these situations requires a relationship of trust built up over time. No group or agency is in the position to connect with people and build trust the way the local church can reach out and minister. The local church is most likely to know where the needs are and how to serve these needs.

We believe that congregations should focus on people—congregants and community members—in disaster recovery with an emphasis on serving those with the greatest need. Though disasters reveal injustices, disaster ministries reveal God’s love, mercies, and grace.

For those looking for a place to start, following are five steps every congregation can take.

Five Steps For Every Congregation

  1. Do no harm. Be careful that your programs don’t unintentionally add to injustice. It is surprisingly easy for this to happen. Keep your focus on the needs of the vulnerable. It is also helpful to understand your motivation for wanting to help. 
  2. Care for the weak, the poor, and the vulnerable. Get involved in your community, seek out those in need, and approach disaster preparedness as a ministry that cuts across everything the church does.
  3. Advocate for the marginalized, calling attention to the impact of disasters on the vulnerable. By being aware of the problem, churches can also adapt their current ministries, or develop new ministries to address gaps in recovery. They can also take a stand against policies that favor those with resources at the cost of the poor. 
  4. Serve as a “bridge” or connector between church and community members in need and available resources. Some churches form working relationships with local agencies for the mutual benefit of helping the agencies better serve the community, and in turn helping the churches better access resources in times of need.
  5. Form a long-term unmet needs committee. What many people don’t realize is that it can take years before a community is back on its feet following a disaster—and even longer for the vulnerable in these communities. To help address “gaps” in need, churches can form a coalition of members from the faith community, nonprofit agencies, government programs, businesses, and individual donors.


Dr. David Boan is co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and associate professor of psychology at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL.

Dr. Jamie D. Aten is founder and co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Rech Endowed Chair of Psychology at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. Follow on twitter @drjamieaten.