Interview with Jamie Aten by Aimee Fritz
This piece was originally published in Family Compassion Focus on October 5, 2016.
I am so thankful for the timing and content of this World Changer Wednesday post. We’re all watching Hurricane Matthew. It’s ravaging the Caribbean, and we are bracing for impact in the southeastern US. What a gift we can feature Dr. Jamie Aten, the Founder and Co-Director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute.
Jamie survived Hurricane Katrina and late-stage cancer. He is an expert on serving those going through trauma and disaster. He teaches, speaks, travels, serves, and writes. I’m so grateful he’s here to share his personal story, big ideas, and practical resources for coping with personal and natural disasters.
Please tell us about yourself, Jamie!
I am a disaster psychologist, author, and speaker. I help others cultivate faith and resilience amidst personal, mass, and humanitarian disasters. I don’t just study disasters—I have lived disasters. I am a Hurricane Katrina and a late-stage cancer survivor in remission. I channel these experiences into helping others live more resiliently and into helping churches minister more effectively.
I hold an endowed research professorship and help train clinical psychology doctoral students at Wheaton College (IL). I’m also a bit of a social entrepreneur. I founded and direct the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Disaster Ministry Conference.
Presently I live in Wheaton, Illinois a suburb outside the city of Chicago with my family. We reside in the middle of suburbia with our dog Buddy in a farmhouse built over 100 years ago. I enjoy going to the city, especially to watch the Cubs. Yet, having grown up in a small rural farming community Oblong, Illinois in the middle of cornfields I try to get out to the country whenever I can.
Why did you pursue this line of work?
I didn’t set out to study disasters. I took a teaching job at the University of Southern Mississippi to study rural health disparities right out of graduate school. Then just six days after moving to South Mississippi Hurricane Katrina struck my community. I saw first hand the important role that faith and churches play times of disaster. Within weeks I was studying faith and disaster resilience and supporting church recovery efforts. I found that faith played a vital role in the lives of many survivors and was linked to greater resilience overall. I saw a need to better equip churches and faith-based organizations to prepare for the unthinkable, care for the vulnerable, and cultivate resilience in times of disaster. Little did I know this would turn into my life’s work.
Since Hurricane Katrina I’ve gone onto research, train, or mobilize church leaders after numerous disasters around the globe in 10 different countries.
Somewhere in the mix of all those mass disasters I encountered a personal disaster.I was diagnosed with late stage cancer at the age of 35. I underwent a yearlong cancer battle that included surgeries and multiple forms of treatments (e.g., chemotherapy). In many ways I saw what I had spent years studying in disaster zones play out in my own life spiritually and emotionally. This was by far the scariest and most difficult time of my life. My cancer has been in remission ever since. This personal tragedy taught me more about suffering and adversity than I liked. However, this painful experience taught me spiritual and psychological lessons I don’t think I would have ever been able to learn from just my research. I’ve tried to follow Rick Warren’s advice, “Never waste your pain.”
Jamie spoke at Wheaton College about his cancer disaster experience today, 10/5/16 at Wheaton College. Here is a link to watch it:
What is the Humanitarian Disaster Institute? Who does it serve? What are it’s goals?
HDI is first social science research center in the country devoted to the study of faith and disasters. The Institute is housed in the Wheaton College clinical psychology doctoral program. Our mission is to help the Church prepare and care amid disasters. Our mission is carried out both domestically and internationally through psychological research, training, and resource development (free tools, resources, etc.). We focus on psychology of religion/spirituality disaster research, disaster ministry, disaster spiritual and emotional care, and refugee and trauma care. We don’t do research just for research sake. Rather we do research that helps empower and equip churches and communities do their work better and with greater resilience.
I’m grateful everyday for the talented HDI team of colleagues and students I get to work with. HDI is comprised of a college-wide interdisciplinary team of scholars, educator, and students committed to helping underserved and vulnerable populations challenged by disasters and humanitarian crises. Our students are engaged at every step of the way in our work to help churches and communities rally around those in need due to crises in our backyard, across the nation, and around the world. We’ve also gathered a top-notch group of researchers from across the country to help us delve into some of life’s biggest questions regarding the impact that adversity can have on psychological and spiritual resilience and growth.
Our annual Disaster Ministry Conference is another way we help others learn how to prepare, respond, and recover from disasters. The Disaster Ministry Conference is a national conference that is quickly turning into a global event. We had participants from 15 countries in attendance at our 2016 conference. The purpose of the Disaster Ministry Conference is to equip church and lay leaders to serve amid disasters (e.g., natural disasters, refugee crises, mass shootings, acts of terrorism) domestically and internationally. The event features global leaders in disaster ministry, emergency management, humanitarian aid, public health, and mental health fields. Participants gain new knowledge, skills, and networks for effectively leading their congregations in developing disaster ministries. For me personally, my favorite part is getting to meet and learn from all the incredible people that attend and speak at our conference. For example, bestselling author Philip Yancey was our keynote speaker a couple years ago. The conference is more than just a couple days of training, it’s developing into a community.
Can you tell us a bit more about your latest book?
The Disaster Ministry Handbook provides a practical guide for disaster preparedness. Disaster ministry is a critically important work of the church, preparing for the unthinkable, providing relief to survivors, caring for the vulnerable and helping communities recover. Filled with resources for emergency planning and crisis management, this book provides best practices for local congregations. By taking action in advance, your church can help prevent harm, save lives during, and learn how to care for the vulnerable amid disaster.
I actually co-wrote my latest book Disaster Ministry Handbook while battling cancer. The idea for the book “hit” me on a night I couldn’t sleep because of chemotherapy related side effects. I slowly made my way out of bed and to the computer. I made a brief outline and for six hours straight I started cutting and pasting all the materials and resources my colleague Dr. David Boan and I had developed through the Humanitarian Disaster Institute over several years.
At this point I was still feeling sick, sleep deprived, and not thinking to clearly from the medicine. Impulsively I sent off what I had pulled together to my editor at InterVarsity. I eagerly waited to see if what I had sent might be the makings for a book someday. Not long after we had a contract in hand.
I struggled to write during my cancer treatment. I’d sometimes go long stretches without being able to write anything tangible—but I kept writing. Writing, though difficult, helped take my mind off the fact I was going through my own personal disaster. We actually sent in our first full draft near the time I wrapped up my treatments. Once I finished treatments, found out I was cancer free, and finally recovered from chemo brain, we jumped back into full-blown writing mode. Several drafts later here it is!
I know it’s impossible to generalize, but what are Christians doing right in their default responses to disaster and trauma? What are we doing wrong?
The Church is better equipped to offer hope, meaning, and support than any other group responding. If your church doors are open after a disaster, and quite honestly even if your church is no longer standing, people are going to turn to your congregation for help. Local congregations are uniquely positioned in their communities to assist with disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. The local church is often among the first to respond and among the last to stop working amid disasters. I would encourage churches to be the church, to be the hands and feet of Christ. For a top ten list of ways local churches can help check out my blog post. [add link: http://www.wheaton.edu/HDI/Blog/2016/01/Every-Church-Should-Have-a-Disaster-Ministry%5D. If your church doesn’t already have a ministry in place to address catastrophes, crises, and emergencies then the time to start is now.
I’d recommend that churches avoid being a S-U-V –that is a spontaneous unaffiliated volunteer. I can relate to wanting to just pick up and go help right after a major disaster event. However, you need to resist the urge to self-deploy. From researching numerous situations around the globe I’ve found this causes more harm than good. After Hurricane Katrina I interviewed a local leader for a study who shared, “Volunteers were one of the biggest blessings after Katrina, and volunteers were one of the biggest curses after Katrina.” By “curse” he was referring to spontaneous unaffiliated volunteers that just show up on their own accord and end up adding to the havoc. If you don’t help through the proper channels, such as established relief groups, you are more likely to get in the way of trained responders, divert resources from survivors, and contribute to the already taxed local infrastructure. Wait until volunteer opportunities become available instead of “parachuting” in on your own. Work with local authorities and see how you can best help the cause.
How do you avoid compassion fatigue, trauma fatigue? How do you refuel?
A while back I was flying and was reading a book called, Who Survives When Disasters Strike? I could feel the woman sitting next to me starring at me. When I looked over she asked if wouldn’t mind putting my book about surviving disasters away for the rest of the flight because it was making her fear of flying worse. I spend a good portion of my day thinking about disasters and sometimes forget that’s not the case for most people. Because of this, I try and am intentional in taking steps to help prevent compassion fatigue, trauma, and fatigue. Sometimes I think it’s easier to help others than to sometimes help ourselves. At the end of the day I struggle with these issues just like everyone else. However, here are a few things I try and do to refuel.
Spending time with my family and playing with my daughters is true soul care for me. I’ve jokingly, or maybe not so jokingly, been called pathologically optimistic. I think this has served me well in my line of work, I can’t imagine being involved in disaster work without hope. Though I spend a lot of time helping after or thinking about bad things, my belief that God is good and with us in our our pain helps sustain me.
- I try and pay attention to what my thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations are trying to tell me.
- As best as I can I try and mindful that helping others affected by disasters can sometimes unearth previous hurts and struggles, like pulling up challenging times from my cancer disaster for example.
- I also look for ways to bring some “normalcy” to my daily routine even if deployed in the wake of disaster.
- I’ve also learned it’s okay to establish some boundaries to ensure proper self-care when helping after a disaster. I try and set boundaries about watching how much media, especially images that I let myself take in at any given time. It’s good to be informed, but there’s a limit to how much exposure is helpful versus possibly hurtful.
- When I was going through my cancer battle a friend encouraged me to do what is life giving. Listening to my favorite jazz album, drinking Intelligentsia coffee at my favorite coffee shop, and watching the Cubs (especially this year!) doesn’t hurt either.
If you could convince every person who gets diagnosed with cancer (and other disasters) of one thing, what would it be? Is there a silver bullet?
Probably the biggest lesson I learned from my cancer disaster experience that I hope others might be able to hold to is this: God can redeem our pain no matter how difficult the struggle. This does not mean that the healing process will be easy, nor does it mean our lives are guaranteed to go back to “normal.” However, I truly believe God is there with us through it all. My cancer disaster helped me realize that no matter what we may be going through, Christ has gone ahead of us to clear a way for our healing, whether it takes place in this life or the next.
For example, early on in my cancer treatments I remember getting ready for radiation. I was really struggling that day with feeling like no one could relate to what I was going through. Then the radiation technician started to slowly move me into position into what looked like a small sterile white “cave-like” machine. In that moment I pictured Christ being laid to rest in the tomb, but also being resurrected with a new body. I felt an incredible sense of peace wash over me as I realized Jesus could relate to the pain I was going through.
Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a “silver bullet” to helping people through cancer, as needs are different person to person.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
I think the most rewarding part of my work is, not to sound cliché, but helping others. I feel incredibly blessed to this day by all the people that came and helped our community after Katrina and also around our family through my cancer disaster. To be healthy again and able to help again is incredibly meaningful to me. I feel humbled to have been the privilege to walk alongside and listen and learn from countless people and congregations affected by disasters. We often think about disasters bringing out the worst in people, but they can bring out the best in others, too. I feel privileged to see how God is working through His Church to meet the needs of those affected by disasters. One of the other parts I enjoy is getting to work with such an incredible team at HDI and all our collaborators.
How is compassion part of responding to disaster?
If there is such a thing as an “X” factor to what distinguishes helpful disaster response from hurtful disaster response, it may just turn out to be compassion. We see examples and stories throughout scripture of Christians tackling what looks like impossible missions to help others. I see compassion as driving force behind those examples. I think our differences can make it hard to offer compassion, especially in really difficult or challenging disaster contexts. The problem happens when we let our differences divide us instead of unite us. I realize it may sound strange, but I think sometimes it’s often a lot easier to show others compassion than ourselves. To combat this, I’d recommend those getting involved in disaster work make sure they have a strong and supportive community around them. This will make more of a positive difference on cultivating compassion than you can imagine.
How can children and families love and serve those in disasters? And should we even try, or is it too traumatizing? Is it worth it, for us, and those we’re trying to serve?
I think this is my favorite question if I’m allowed to have one. YES, I think children and families can help others affected by disasters. If you are the parent or caregiver, remember to always take an appropriate development approach.
My three young daughters always have lots of questions and want to know what I’m working on or how I’m helping. I try and share with them, but again, only in ways that are fitting to their age, interests, and personality. For example, I told them how our team was going to help after the Louisiana flood and shared stories with them after I got home. I even told them a lot of people were hurting, but I didn’t go into the images of this or great detail. I kept it pretty generic, like, “Dad was helping people who were really sad because of the disaster.” I try and balance this with sharing encouraging and uplifting stories of faith and altruism. I want my kids to see there is beauty even in brokenness. I also try and communicate regularly whyI help and why we as a family should help.
Another thing you can do is to look for ways to actually get your children involved. One way might be to even get your kids to help you make a preparedness kit. You can actually find some really interesting and fun videos on disaster preparedness on Disney’s website or Ready.gov. The goal is always to select ways to learn about disasters or get involved that don’t make children feel fearful or distressed. For example, I’ve talked some about the work I did in Japan after the 3/11 tsunami. To show my youngest daughter the unbelievable destruction left behind by this disaster would have been way too much for her to take in at that time. Thus, to teach her about tsunamis I took her to see the exhibit on disasters at the Chicago Science Museum. Sometimes we will also pray for those affected by disasters or humanitarian crises together too and remind our children that God is still good and still loves us and loves others.
Your kids might also just surprise you. For example, after sharing how I was helping with the GC2 Summit on Refugees last January, my girls started to get really interested in refugee issues. I encouraged them to reach out and befriend the refugee children attending their school. When my children tell me they want to help, I work with them to brainstorm ways that they might get involved. For example, my daughters have set up a lemonade stand a couple of times and donated the money to World Relief to help refugees. My girls have also drawn pictures and sent with me to give to those affected or helping before too. They’ve even sent money with me to give to groups I sometimes work with like Medair. One of my daughters even started a helping society for a while at school to help kids with everything from learning how to do the monkey bars to writing encouraging letters to spending recess with kids that may not have very many friends.
Disasters often reveal deep injustices and suffering. However, getting involved in disaster ministry reveals God’s grace, mercy, and compassion. By getting our children involved in helping after disasters our children can learn some very important life and faith lessons.
Please tell us about the White House award!
Three years ago I thought my disaster ministry was over. Receiving this award from FEMA on the other side of my cancer disaster and literally flying in to receive this award at the White House from Louisiana after helping has been incredibly meaningful and humbling.
A couple weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend the 2016 FEMA Individual and Community Preparedness (ICP) award ceremony. I received the Community Preparedness Champion award and a signed preparedness proclamation from President Obama for my disaster ministry work.
During my time in Washington, D.C, I had the opportunity to hear from some of our country’s top emergency management leaders. I learned a lot from getting to participate in two full days of activities split between FEMA Headquarters and the White House. In fact, I had writer’s cramp from taking down so many notes during the meetings I attended!
Lastly, what advice would you have for our readers anxious about Hurricane Matthew?
Here are some tips for how you can help after Hurricane Matthew:
- Pray – In times of disasters we shouldn’t see prayer as an afterthought, but rather as one of the most powerful things we can do to help.
- Don’t self-deploy – Don’t just hop on a plane to go to help during the immediate disaster response phase, you’ll like just add to the havoc.
- Help through proper channels – Look for ways to help through established relief groups, ministries, community organizations and the like.
- Match aid to need – Make sure your efforts to help on the survivors’ needs and not your own, a good rule of thumb is, “Aid happens where need meets resources.”
- Give financially – Giving money now is one of the most effective ways you can help in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe.
- Don’t forget those affected – Once Haiti is no longer making front-page news it’s easy for us to forget that disaster recovery takes a long time. Look for ways to support long-term recovery efforts. This may also be a good time to consider volunteering.
Thank you so much, Jamie!
Links related to Dr. Aten, HDI, and his books:
- Dr. Jamie D. Aten Bio
- Humanitarian Disaster Institute
- To purchase the Disaster Ministry Handbook click here
Dr. Aten in the Media:
- How to Cope with Difficult Milestones in Psychology Today
- Spiritual Advice for Surviving Cancer and Other Disasters in The Washington Post
- How to Refer a Loved One to Counseling After a Disaster in Psychology Today
- FEMA Honors Achievements in Community Preparedness
©Aimee Fritz & Family Compassion Focus, 2016.