What Do You Do When Disaster Hits? Dr. Jamie Aten on Dealing with Disaster

Interview with Jamie Aten by Mei Ling Starkey

This article was originally published in Risen Magazine on September 9, 2016.

Tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and firestorms, every day our headlines are filled with tragedy here in the U.S and abroad. Homes are damaged, memories lost, and people are injured or worse.

Dr. Jamie Aten is a disaster psychologist and the founder of Wheaton College’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute. Their mission is to equip churches and ministries across the U.S to deal with both man-made and natural disasters. Dr. Aten was 35 years old when he was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. The husband and father of three survived and the cancer is now in remission. Dr. Aten is also a survivor of Hurricane Katrina. His vision is to now help others who have experienced disaster in their lives.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Matthew 5:3-5

Dr. Aten shared in the Washington Post about what he learned from his cancer disaster experience.

“Probably the biggest lesson I learned from my cancer disaster experience is that 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. 

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. I also realized 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.”

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

Dr. Aten expressed the importance of people being trained in order to help others during a time of crisis. It came out of his personal experience with Hurricane Katrina.

“Now what?” I wondered as I stood in my living room as Hurricane threatened. I had moved to South Mississippi just six days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, and just finished following the preparedness instructions issued by state and local governments. Though I had a resource in my hand I had no idea how to use it to prepare for the disaster headed my way. During the months and years following Hurricane Katrina, I visited and studied local congregations and witnessed how these churches addressed the overwhelming needs. I also helped and studied disasters across 10 countries. From these experiences I learned that faith and churches play an important role in disaster resilience. 

However, I found that most people and most churches aren’t sure how prepare and care amid tragedy. I never thought it could happen to me,” is something I’ve heard after almost every major disaster I’ve responded too. When disaster strikes it can feel like pure chaos. Disaster training can help you know how to respond in ways that are truly helpful. Perhaps even more important than the knowledge and skills you’ll gain, disaster training helps you to gain new relationships and expand your network. Overall, disaster training is an integral aspect of building resilience.

That’s why I started the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI), the first social science research center in the country devoted to the study of faith and disasters. The mission of HDI is to equip churches and faith-based organizations to prepare for the unthinkable, care for the vulnerable, and cultivate resilience in times of disaster. 

Risen Reflections

Turn to God in your tragedy. Whether it is personal tragedy or a natural disaster, God wants to be there for you during your time of crisis. Pray. Cry out to Him. It is okay to pray prayers of frustration and ask your questions to God. Listen and allow the Holy Spirit to speak to you through His word and through others. While it may be humbling, ask others for help. Many churches and organizations have professional counselors and resources to help individuals and families, whatever the tragedy might be.

Help others. Whether it is a friend, co-worker, small group member or someone from church, there are people around us every day that need our help. They don’t have to be our best friends or family in order for us to reach out. Pray and ask God to show you how you can respond either to a natural disaster or someone experiencing a personal crisis. A meal, groceries, clothing or even being a listening ear are just some of the ways that you can show God’s love to those that are hurting. Remember that it is often hard for others to ask for help, so be willing to offer when you see a need.

Get trained to help. Whether it is the Humanitarian Disaster Institute or some other form of crisis training, many churches and organizations offer training to help people respond to disasters. Ask a friend or your small group to do the training with you. That way when disaster hits, you are prepared to respond!

Training and numerous free resources can be found at [www.wheaton.edu/HDI/Resources] or consider attending our annual Disaster Ministry Conference [www.disasterministryconference.com].