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Disaster Response is Both/And

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Early Response Team members break for lunch at First United Methodist Church in Harrisburg, IL, where they were lending a hand after a rash of tornadoes brought destruction to the town February 29.
Tom Hazelwood/UMCOR

By Rev. Tom Hazelwood*

“I have traveled all over to work on teams that were helping other people. Then, the other day, it was us that got hit. So now we ain’t going nowhere. We are helping each other – and I dare someone to tell me I need a badge! I don’t care if they throw me in jail, I’m going to help my neighbors!”

Those were the words of Gus, a member of the United Methodist Church in a small town recently hit by a tornado. Gus has put into words the feelings of many local people when disaster strikes a community.

His sentiment also strikes at the heart of many conversations I have had over the last weeks and months about enabling local congregations to reach out in ministry after disaster.

There seem to be two streams of thought on the matter. The first adheres to the idea that only trained, badged, affiliated disaster responders should be allowed to respond to a disaster. After all, say its proponents, you never know what one might encounter when one “goes out” to respond. Someone may have died. What if a responder stumbles across a body part? How would that affect an untrained volunteer?

The second stream of thought is aptly expressed by Gus: This is my community, these are my friends, and I am going to help.

In my mind, UMCOR’s job is to enable people of either of viewpoint to engage in disaster ministry. Disaster response begins and ends locally. UMCOR has always emphasized that disasters must be “locally owned.”

The question is how do we help local congregations engage from the very beginning and sustain that desire and energy to make it to the end? This is closely followed by another question: How do we most effectively use the Early Response or Care teams that have been trained and are ready to be deployed when disaster strikes?

Truth is everything depends on the scale of the disaster. When the need overwhelms the resources of the local community, outside assistance is required. If outside assistance is required, it does NOT mean that the local community is not engaged, it means that they are fully engaged, but require extra hands to meet the needs.

It is UMCOR’s intention to create and provide “just-in-time” materials that can be a toolbox for local churches in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Time after time, when I am on the ground in a disaster area immediately following an event, I see the local church mostly engaging in response. Some instinctively are doing all sorts of ministry. Some are cooking meals. Others want to engage in ministry, but are not quite sure if they can, or if they should. What if UMCOR had the ability not only to give a local church some options for engagement but, also, tools on HOW to make those options operational? I think this is a great idea, but not all do.

When I bring up the need for “just-in-time” materials for local churches, I tend to receive questions from members and leaders of Early Response and Care teams. After all, they have spent a great deal of time being trained and credentialed, and they care tremendously about their work. They truly believe they are the ones who should be out there after a disaster.

Does this have to be a territorial battle in which everyone is fighting over who gets to respond? I confess this is the most frustrating part of my work!

It is my most sincere desire that we would NEVER need to send an Early Response Team or Care Team into a disaster. I wish that each local community – including the local United Methodist Church – were so prepared that when disaster strikes, they would be able to handle everything themselves!

However, that is just a dream. Disasters seem to always catch us unprepared. Sometimes they are so large that they overwhelm even the most prepared. That’s why we need Early Response Teams and Care Teams.

It’s not “either/or.” In the best of Wesleyan tradition, it’s “both/and.”
Here is how I see it.

I begin by supposing a disaster that is large enough to require additional assistance from outside the community.

In the first hours, the members of the affected local congregation spend their time taking care of family and friends. Then, inevitably, people start to gather at the church, maybe for worship, maybe just because that is where we “go.” The church begins to engage in disaster ministry. Maybe church members decide to cook. Maybe the church serves as a shelter or a relief center for the community. Sometimes churches become a site for the collection and distribution of relief supplies. All of those things involve people COMING TO THE CHURCH.

There also are ways that the church and its members can reach OUT TO THE COMMUNITY. Teams of members, after a brief orientation, can canvas their neighborhood and find out how their friends are doing. They can deliver food to those who are afraid to leave their houses. Those who are able will want to go help clean up. All of these things are within the scope of a local church’s engagement with their community.

If the disaster area is so large that locals cannot do all the work, they can invite teams from outside the community to come join them in their response. Early Response Teams come to help with cleanup. Care Teams come to help with spiritual and emotional care needs. Outsiders are always a supplement to the local response!

Local volunteers will run on adrenalin for quite a while, but the time will come when a transition must take place in order for the locals to rest and then re-engage for the long haul of recovery. It is during the long-term recovery that the local church and community work together with volunteers from outside.

I think it is UMCOR’s obligation to enable local churches to engage in disaster response while the adrenaline is pumping, from the moment the water level falls, the wind stops roaring, or the shaking ceases.

Trained Early Response Team or Care Team members and leaders, be happy when you don't have to be deployed. Don't feel threatened when the local community is able to handle its own disaster. Local church members, please consider UMCOR’s Connecting Neighbors training. But if you are not able to have training before a storm or other crisis, please know UMCOR has “just-in-time” materials that will help you from the moment a disaster strikes.

*The Rev. Tom Hazelwood is UMCOR assistant general secretary for US Disaster Response.

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