After Superstorm Sandy, Advice for Churches from the First Christian Disaster Research Center

Interview with Jamie Aten by Melissa Steffan

This piece was originally published on ChristianityToday.com on November 2, 2012.

Image: Andrew Burton / Getty

Image: Andrew Burton / Getty

An interview with Wheaton College's new Humanitarian Disaster Institute.

Wheaton College was far from the massive path of Hurricane Sandy, but researchers at the Illinois school's Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI) had been monitoring the tropical storm for weeks. Now, the only Christian disaster research center in the United States is ready to help equip affected churches for post-disaster response.

Jamie D. Aten, founder and co-director of HDI and chair of Wheaton's psychology department, said the institute—which launched last August—aims to equip churches with resources such as spiritual-care tip sheets and "faithful readiness training" to respond when natural disasters strike.

Local churches are uniquely prepared to offer immediate, on-the-ground assistance to areas affected by Hurricane Sandy and other natural disasters, Aten said. The best way to do that? According to Aten, identify ministries in which a particular church already excels; then partner with other churches or associations, such as the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster which coordinates emergency response from religious groups and other private agencies.

What recovery efforts are needed by local churches in communities affected by Hurricane Sandy?

Think about being the full body of Christ. Together, we come together as a full body, and the more the full body can coordinate ahead of time—and even now that they're affected—[churches] can start to leverage their resources and ministries in a more effective way if they partner together.

For the local churches in affected areas, they need to think about what they already do well. What has God called them to do in their communities? This is a time in which they can take those ministries to be able to serve the community as well as their congregation. For example, if a church has a strong children's ministry and has leaders in the congregation prepared to work with children, a place for them to start would be [helping] children who have been affected by Sandy.

Churches can also identify and reach out to vulnerable populations. … The local church in New York and the rest of the region should be thinking about elderly and vulnerable people in their community. They might literally want to go out door to door and see if they're okay.

How important is it for affected churches to still meet together for worship after disasters like Hurricane Sandy?

It's important for survivors to remember that recovery takes place in community. I would highly encourage churches, even if they were affected, to think about how they can get their congregations back together for worship. After Hurricane Katrina, we heard pastors refer to the first Sunday after the storm as "Slab Sunday"—because that's literally all that was left. But congregation members still showed up to those slabs for worship—to support each other, cry with each other, thank God for the ways that he protected them, and to ask God for help and strength in recovery.

Why does it matter that HDI is "the first faith-based academic disaster research center in the country"?

We come from an academic approach, but we recognize the expertise of local churches. All the work we do is applied. We don't do research just for the sake of research. We do research to try to empower local communities and churches.

Historically, the faith-based community and the church have largely been underutilized after disasters. But in the last decade—following disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the deepwater Horizon oil spill, or currently Hurricane Sandy—we're starting to see the very important and significant role that the local church can play in helping to prepare and respond to disasters. Our hope is that we'll be able to come alongside the Christian community to be able to help churches and organizations to be able to promote greater community resilience.

One of your research goals is to "study the relationship between faith and resiliency (e.g. mental, physical, spiritual, and community outcomes)." What do you know so far about that relationship? Is there a link?

People who are able to utilize their faith and to rely on God during those times in a healthy way tend to fare much better than those who are unable to do so. Those who positively use their faith to cope tend to experience less-severe negative physical, spiritual, and mental health outcomes.

One of the beliefs we have found that has led to greater mental health problems has been a belief that God was specifically punishing that person with a storm. For example, a survivor who says, "God sent this hurricane to punish me," that person is much more likely to experience significant psychological distress versus someone who maybe also lost everything but says, "God saved me from this disaster," or, "God is a loving God who kept me safe in this time."

How can Christians respond to disasters such as Sandy in ways that reflect Christ?

One of the best ways we can demonstrate the gospel is to be both salt and light in these situations. The church has the opportunity to share Christ's hope and love. In times like this, I think back to the Old Testament and recall God's promise to Noah. [God] entered a covenant and promised that he will be faithful. The church can show love and hope and be a testament to God's faithfulness.