Caring for the Vulnerable Amid Disasters: Reflections on the Disaster Ministry Conference 2016

This entry was originally published on Resilire Blog on June 13, 2016. 

"If we are going to be effective in helping the vulnerable in times of disaster and humanitarian crisis, we  must learn to walk in community with those we serve, each other, and God." 

As I awoke to the news on Sunday of the tragic mass shooting in Orlando, I was once again reminded that many disasters strike without warning.

Just last week, I was immersed in discussions about how to best care for the vulnerable amid crises at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute’s Disaster Ministry Conference (#DMC16) at Wheaton College, alongside global leaders and volunteers from 13 countries who are involved in disaster ministry, emergency management, humanitarian aid, public health, and mental health fields.


Though many might not realize, disasters do not affect all people equally. Those with fewer resources, the young and old, the differently abled, the marginalized and oppressed are all at greater risk. The vulnerable tend to suffer much more than the rest of the general population after a disaster or humanitarian crisis, and the road to recovery can also be significantly more challenging. For this reason, I chose “Caring for the Vulnerable” as this year’s theme for our conference, and included a special focus on the role of the church in responding to the refugee crisis. 

Perhaps the primary, overarching lesson of this year’s conference was that caring for the vulnerable ultimately depends upon one thing--community. If we are going to be effective in helping those in need in times of disaster and humanitarian crisis, we must learn to walk in community with those we serve, with each other, and with our God. 

Following are some more important lessons from our speakers and participants:


Disasters are a biblical justice issue.

The church is called to serve the marginalized in times of disasters and crises. As Humanitarian Disaster Institute Co-Director Dr. David Boan reminded us, “Disaster ministry is an expression of our faith.” Bishop Efraim Tendero, secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance, set the tone for the conference when he said in his keynote address, “We are dared to be the salt and light to better our communities because of the presence of the church . . . We have the calling, character, and capacity to lead society in caring, resourcing, and transforming the vulnerable members of our communities.”


We need to truly know the vulnerable.

Sheryl Haw, international director of Micah Global noted, “Don’t just show love in your words. You must show evidence of your love by how you live with others.” It’s important to identify those who might be vulnerable in our churches and communities. But beyond that, if we are going to be effective in our work and ministry with the vulnerable, we must learn to listen, sit with, and live alongside them. Our eyes also need to be opened to causes of oppression. Emily Gray of World Relief DuPage/Aurora encouraged us to make this our prayer—that our eyes would be open to the needs before us--right in our own communities. Tom Albinson, founder of the International Association for Refugees, said, “It’s important to understand the causes of vulnerability. Some of these include social injustice, financial challenge, environment, and illiteracy. There’s not just one reason people become vulnerable. There are many interlocking reasons. It’s time the church engaged in holistic intervention.”


God answers our “Why” questions amidst our crises through relationships.

“Justice can feel like a slow kingdom coming. But know the arc of the universe is bending toward justice,” said Kent Annan, author of Slow Kingdom Coming and founder of Haiti Partners, reminding us that though it may sometimes seem as though justice will never come, it is a part of God’s promise to us that will one day be fulfilled. Along these lines, Sheryl Haw noted that the common response to crisis has changed since biblical times. She said, “Today we often ask, ‘Why?’ Yet the people of the Bible asked, ‘How long?’” Elisabeth Ahlquist, development manager with Medair, shared in her devotional that we are often left standing in a gap in times of disasters and humanitarian crises between hope and reality. We see, hear, and live experiences that sometimes shake our worldviews. This frequently leaves us with more questions than answers. But Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, reminded us, “God doesn’t always give us the answer to our why. Instead God gives us himself.” And the way we experience God’s presence today, is often through his people. His response often comes through those he sends us into our lives to walk alongside us in community.

We need to do more than just welcome refugees.

The current refugee crisis is the largest displacement of people since WWII. During “The Church and the Refugee Crisis” panel discussion, Tom Albinson urged, “Help new arrivals find their feet and contribute to society. It’s great to welcome people, but we have to help integrate them and set them up for success.” Matthew Soerens, U.S. Director of Church Mobilization for World Relief, offered a helpful acrostic, PLEASE, that serves as a helpful reminder of the many ways we can help refugees:

P - prayer

L - listening

E - education

A - advocacy

S - service

E - Evangelism (not proselytizing)


We must overcome fear with faith in our response to the refugee crisis.

Research has shown that many people in the US, including church-goers, fear refugees. We need to help move people from a fear-based response to a faith-based response. According to Emily Gray, “There are churches that are so afraid, they have come close to dividing over the refugee issue.” Facts are needed. But it is through prayer, story, and through relationship that fear will be transformed into faith. It’s time for us to welcome discussion and welcome people different than ourselves. Yet we need to go further in our response. We need to pray that our communities might be more aware and follow up this awareness with action.


Lament is important to sustaining disaster and humanitarian ministry.

Lament is commonly defined as experiencing or expressing sorrow. Kent Annan shared, “Confession is an essential aspect of doing justice work . . . it’s not just confessing our sins, it’s also confessing our vulnerabilities.” We need to confess when our help has also hurt. We also practice confession so that we are free to ask God to shape us. We see throughout scripture examples of people of God who regularly practiced confession and lament. It’s when we confess our weaknesses that God steps in, and often tackles the seemingly impossible. Sharing our weaknesses with one another can also bring us together, though we often fear that our brokenness will push people away. Roger Sandberg of Medical Teams International reminded us that lament can also mean protest, and that the church needs to be involved in advocacy. If social injustice makes people vulnerable, then we need to be involved in both policy and advocacy. We also need to be advocates for the vulnerable in our own churches and communities.


Dr. Jamie D. Aten is the founder and co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College.  He is a co-author of the new “Disaster Ministry Handbook.” Follow Dr. Aten on Twitter @drjamieaten and