Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Real Disaster Response—Servants for the Ministry

North Shore Slidell Station hosted team of volunteers who helped rebuild homes following Hurricane Katrina.

In the recent Batman Dark Knight movie there is a scene where the Joker uses a quip we have all heard many times, he says, “I'm like a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught one.” To some extent, I feel like that is analogous to the situation we find ourselves in today in U.S. Disaster Response. For years, we in the voluntary sector and especially the faith-based disaster response organizations have chased after government dollars to help pay for the work that we do as partners in disaster mitigation, response, and recovery.

In the four years following Hurricane Katrina, we finally got some of what we have been chasing. What have we caught? The U.S. Government now funds a variety of programs that are intended to help the disaster survivor following disasters. Whether the money comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) or some other source, it has created a dilemma for the faith community.

At UMCOR, we are clear that our mission and ministry are to provide humanitarian assistance “without regard” to a person’s status. Yet, if we as an organization decide to receive money to implement one of the programs being funded by the government, we suddenly have to abide by the parameters that are set by the government as to who can be served. Therein lies the problem.

Do we accept money from the government and the inherent restrictions and reporting mechanisms that go with it? Or do we simply ignore the opportunity for government funds and just stick with doing what we can with the funds that are donated by those who support the ministry of UMCOR?

What are the options?

Okay, so one solution would be for UMCOR to expand its current non-governmental program, which works internationally, to include a domestic program. Thus UMCOR would create parallel programs, one that uses our private donor funds and one that is funded by the government. Oh, except there is a problem with that model. UMCOR believes fundamentally that all disasters are local. Therefore, the actual implementing of ministry programming (the REAL response and recovery) takes place at the annual conference and community level.

Well then, UMCOR could implement government-funded programs locally, and we could simply continue to provide the private United Methodist funding to annual conferences so they can implement their own response and recovery as they have in the past. We actually tried something similar to this approach after Hurricane Katrina when UMCOR created Katrina Aid Today (KAT) with a grant from FEMA, and while KAT itself was a very successful project, and the annual conference response and recovery, which is still ongoing today, was/is also successful, it did not make for good relationships between UMCOR and our annual conferences. There was always tension between the goals of the government-sponsored program and the UMC funded program. It felt like we were competing with ourselves.

Today, it appears that most government funding for response and recovery is going to be channeled through the states. What this means practically is that any application for government funds will have to be made by the annual conference. I openly ask the question, how many of our annual conferences have both the capacity and the desire and willingness to create parallel operations for disaster response and recovery if they have a disaster? My assessment is: “Not many.”

All this brings me back to my first metaphor. We, like the dog, have chased down the proverbial car. Now what?

I think we must remember who we are. We are called to be ministers for Jesus Christ. And for UMCOR, as a part of the general agency of the UMC called to serve Global Ministries, we have the charge to equip willing servants for the ministry of disaster response. I think we have to choose. Do we want to enable the ministry of the church, enable volunteers to participate in risk-taking mission and service, or do we want to implement government programs? Now don’t get me wrong here, I fully understand that BOTH are means of helping those who have survived disaster move toward wholeness and the new normal that comes following disaster. BOTH are well intentioned and serve a great purpose. But having observed UMCOR oversee one government grant I believe UMCOR’s place is to be the enabler of ministry. Like the pooch that chased down the car and got hit by the tire, I think it is better to stay home and be the friend and companion to our annual conferences and not chase cars any more. But perhaps you have an even better idea we have not considered. Send us a line. Let us know what you think!

By Tom Hazelwood, Assistant General Secretary, US Disaster Response, UMCOR

1 comment:

  1. Tom,
    I appreciate your remarks and would encourage a thoughtful review of a parallel process of both government funding and UMCOR donor support.
    Yes there are restrictions, administrative and fiscal requirements with government funding. However the opportunity to leverage the national and local contacts of the UMC with the vast expertise of UMCOR is a combination with the potential to impact and forward the mission of the UMC.
    In San Diego, Metro United Methodist Urban Ministry has been managing publically funded programs and receiving funding from individuals, congregations and foundations. Their are inherent challenges but there are also significant opportunities to build on the impressive reputation of UMCOR and to forward a timeless message of hope.
    If you decided to consider public funding please let us know our organization would love to share our experiences with you and UMCOR
    Thanks for all you do to help represent us to those in the most desperate of situations.

    Rev. John Hughes, MSW
    Metro United Methodist Urban Ministry
    San Diego Interfaith Disaster Council, Chair