Preparing and Caring in Disaster-Filled Times

Interview with Jamie Aten by Angela Rietsma Bick

This article was originally published in the Christian Courier on January 9, 2017.

Disasters and their aftermath can be an opportunity for the local church to do what it does best: care for the vulnerable, get involved and seek out those in need.

We know what disaster looks like. We’ve seen it in the faces of those fleeing Fort McMurray, in the tangled rebar rubble of Aleppo and broken glass in a Berlin market – to mention just a few of the mass and humanitarian disasters in the past year.

We recognize the aftermath, but know very little about how to prepare for any of these crises. Yet research shows that readiness can reduce or even prevent disaster. That’s the first reason this discussion should matter to churches – because it offers the chance to minimize suffering.

Furthermore, many people turn to faith groups in an emergency. This means, according to Jamie D. Aten and David Boan in the Disaster Ministry Handbook, that disasters and their aftermath can be an opportunity for the local church to do what it does best: care for the vulnerable, get involved and seek out those in need.

I spoke with Dr. Aten, Wheaton College Psychology Professor and Co-Director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute, on the upside of extreme events, how the media influences our donations and why your church should have a disaster ministry.

CC: You say that disasters reveal the underlying fabric of the community. What do you mean?
Dr. Aten: Oftentimes when we think about disasters, we think about the damage left behind in the wake of the event. But the event also pulls back the curtain on the injustices already present in most communities.

Consider the earthquake in Haiti [in 2010]. There’ve been other earthquakes of similar magnitude and in similar geographic regions in terms of population density, yet the death toll in Haiti was significantly higher – many homes were not built correctly, people had been paid for work that wasn’t done. Disasters magnify the struggles people are going through on a daily basis.

Disasters vary so widely, and seem to be increasing in frequency. Can an individual church really prepare for so many variables?
If you tried to respond to everything at once, it would actually hurt your efforts to get ready. You’d become overwhelmed. I encourage congregations instead to consider “What is your unique calling?” and to really understand theologically what your role would be in the face of a disaster. And then start small.

What do you already do well? If your congregation has a strong children’s ministry, or a strong ministry in caring for the elderly, start there. Don’t try to respond to everything. Think more broadly about how would we care for the needs of children? i.e., to help them and their families in the event of a disaster. That will help you build capacity for responding.

If you’re able to get ready for even just one risk factor, that will give you the ability to pivot in response to a number of types of events.

I’m a member of the Christian Reformed denomination, which – for its small size – has a pretty large relief and development organization that responds to crises around the world. Does my local church still need to do disaster preparedness?
I think very highly of World Renew; they are such a blessing to so many communities that have been affected by disasters. Even though the Christian Reformed Church has such a wonderful relief arm, I would still encourage local congregations to make the effort to get prepared for disasters. For example, think about the role of FEMA in the United States – our Federal Emergency Management Agency. Historically, the idea had been that should a large disaster hit, FEMA would come in and help rebuild and take care of disaster needs. But even FEMA has started to shift the way that they are thinking. They’ve adopted the whole community approach, which suggests that yes, the relief organization and others have an incredible and important role to play, but as disasters are becoming more complex and larger and more damaging, it’s going to take all of us working together. We can’t just rely on external help.

In fact I often recommend that churches go to World Renew’s website (worldrenew.net) and check out some of the great resources that they have, including how to get your church prepared. There’s a lot your church can do before the disaster to help make calm out of the chaos.

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Aten and Boan’s book is a practical guide and introduction to the idea of disaster ministry.

What motivates donations to distant disasters?
How much media attention is given to it. Also, how much we can relate to or see ourselves in the people affected by the disaster. After the Nepal earthquake, I wrote an article that highlighted giving patterns around major disasters in the last decade. When press and media attention for a disaster increase, our giving follows almost identically.

Also, you may recall the global response on social media to the Paris attacks [of November 2015]. Compare that to some of the reactions people had to a terrorist attack in an impoverished country in Africa. You didn’t see everybody suddenly changing their Facebook accounts when an attack happened in Africa, but many people did after the Paris attacks. When I can identify with the victims, it’s easier to empathize with them.

Therefore it’s important that local churches help bring attention to these events. I’m grateful that my home church readily prays for major events, from the refugee crisis to current disasters.

Not all aid helps. How can we avoid useless or harmful attempts?
There are definitely right ways and wrong ways to help. When an event first happens, resist that urge to self-deploy. I’ve had friends who literally packed up the pickup and drove hundreds of miles to help. Even though their heart is in the right place, they’re more likely to cause harm doing that. Don’t be an SUV – a Spontaneous, Unaffiliated Volunteer. If you’re not connected to a proper organization, you’re going to need your own resources – food, a place to stay – which may mean you’re taking food and shelter from someone who needs it.

Respond first with prayer, giving donations and supporting relief organizations like World Renew by listening to what they say they need. World Renew issues volunteer opportunities, ways you can get involved. That’s the best way to do it. There will be times you can go, but it needs to be through the proper channels.

“Our life is one long process of mutual aid,” author David Dark says, “and what a relief it is when people act on this knowledge.” Does that resonate with you?
One of the things that I often share with people is that it takes a community to recover. I’ve seen this in terms of large-scale, mass disasters, but on a more personal level when I was going through my own cancer disaster, I remember early on my college president asking how I was doing. I shared with him that I was struggling with accepting help – I’m the type of person that likes to help people, but it’s hard for me to accept help. And he said, “Jamie, we’re all the type of people that need help.”

I think if we can own that we all are hurting, whether a mass disaster or personal disaster, then that pain can actually unite rather than divide us, and we’ll be much stronger together.

You visit devastated communities and countries. What brings you hope?
I’d like to respond to that on two different levels. I tend to be an optimistic person, so I do look for the best in situations. I’m a Stage 4 cancer survivor, two years in remission. What I’ve seen in my work professionally as a Disaster Psychologist as well as from what I’ve learned in going through my own personal disaster – there’s a difference between optimism and hope. As Christians, we have an eternal hope. Even though we live in world that is broken, where there’s pain and suffering, I know that God will be there with us through that pain. We may not always get answers to our “Why?” questions, but God will give us himself – he will be with us through that pain and suffering. That’s where my hope comes from.

The other part is that I remember interviewing survivors after Hurricane Katrina. I’ll never forget this one person who shared with me that “I saw God in the people in my community. I saw God in the people driving the vans down with supplies. I saw God working in the soup kitchen.”

In times of disaster, God is working through his people. It’s almost overwhelming at times, to see God’s grace extended to those who need it most.

We think about disasters revealing the worst, be it nature or even human nature. But on the ground, I’ve been very fortunate to see the best of people come to the surface.