The third weekend in January, tornadoes ripped through the Southeast, killing 20 people, injuring dozens more, and causing millions of dollars in damage. But this isn’t the first tragedy this area has experienced, nor will it be the last. As Christians, we must always offer aid to those in need, but what are the best ways to go about helping communities affected by natural disasters or other tragedies? In Touch Magazine’s managing editor, Jamie A. Hughes, sat down with Dr. Jamie D. Aten—author of Disaster Ministry Handbook—to discuss the church’s role in times of crisis.
Jamie Hughes: Do Christians have a moral obligation to do disaster relief ministry?
Jamie Aten: I think we have a moral obligation, especially from a biblical justice perspective, to help address the injustices in our own communities, and to help those who are underserved in need. And so when I think about stories like the Good Samaritan, or Nehemiah's response, or even how Joseph took plans to help Egypt prepare to respond to the needs of a pending drought, I remember that we, as the church, can play a very strong role in showing and exemplifying God's love, grace, and mercy to those who are underserved.
Hughes: Christ invites us to participate in the work of making all things new. How does reaching out both in times of disaster and before they occur allow us to bring healing to the world around us?
Aten: I think when we reach out to the world around us, it really does show that we care about those that we're helping, that we see them as people. Sometimes church can feel like an abstract concept, or faith can feel very abstract in the lives of those who don't know Christ.
I remember something a Katrina survivor shared with me. He said that he never really understood the idea of God. But then he said, “I saw God for the first time in my life in the people who were driving the vans full of supplies. I saw God in the lives of Christians who were working in the soup kitchens.”
Hughes: Can you tell me about a moment when you saw the church truly living out its calling to be Jesus’ hands and feet in times of crisis?
Aten: For me, it was seeing Christians at work in South Mississippi and New Orleans . It was about six weeks after the event, and churches came together, bringing their unique calling and skills. And when they worked together, everything clicked. I remember thinking, This is what it means in Scripture to be the full body of Christ and respond to times of need. In that moment, I realized the local church was powerful.
Hughes: You write, “Vulnerability is fundamentally an issue of justice.” Could you explain what you mean by that? How have you personally seen this play out, and how have you seen it amended?
Aten: If there's vulnerability, there's harm; we're just not necessarily aware of it. Those individuals who are vulnerable economically and socially are much more at risk for experiencing disasters in a profoundly unjust way.
For instance, in Haiti after the earthquake, everyone saw the injustice in terms of loss of life. But the part that they didn't see was how vulnerabilities came to the surface. While there, I learned of a cultural practice called restavek. It comes from a French phrase—rester avec—that means, “to stay with.” Poor families will send their children to live with relatives or even strangers, typically in more urban areas, in hopes that they'll have a better life. But oftentimes, the children are treated like slaves and subjected to abuse. After the earthquake, many kids ended up being trafficked. That’s an example of vulnerability, one that leads to great injustice.
Poor families will send their children to live with relatives or even strangers in hopes that they'll have a better life. But oftentimes, the children are treated like slaves and subjected to abuse.
Hughes: How can we take steps to prevent vulnerability in our communities?
Aten: I encourage people to start now by engaging in what they feel called to do to help. Because no matter what happens in a disaster, there are going to be special needs. So if you're really passionate about helping children, start helping children now. Don't wait until times of a disaster. Get involved. Get to know the kids in your community. Serve through your church in that way. And if a disaster hits, your job isn't to go out and remove tree branches. Your job should be to build off that relationship you have and serve those kids. So start where you are—build capacity, build relationships, build skills. And then when disaster strikes, you can better meet the needs that arise.
Hughes: Christians are called to practice good stewardship. How can serving others at the point of their greatest need help us better understand this high calling?
Aten: Serving in times of disasters redefines stewardship because it makes sacrifice become real for us. I think of John 15:13 that, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” Concepts like that are foreign to Christians here in the U.S., but when you're in a disaster circumstance, that sort of sacrifice becomes real and tangible. Also, it really helps us to understand that Christ went before us, and anything that we're going through also makes His suffering more real to us.
Hughes: We need so much more than good intentions and a roll of duct tape to help others. How can individual Christians best assist those in need?
Aten: I encourage people to think about giving financially after a disaster. We often don't like that as well as giving belongings or gifts to people, but oftentimes what will happen is that there'll be a mismatch between what we give and what's actually needed at the moment. By giving a donation, it's more likely that that funding is going to go to where it will help more efficiently.
Another option is to volunteer, but we need to go about it the right way. We don't want to be SUVs (Spontaneous Unaffiliated Volunteers). Instead, we should find an organization that's on the ground and responding to the event. When you go through an organization that is part of the local, federal, and state emergency response, you can do more good. They know what's needed. They're all playing together well. If you just show up, you're probably going to be more in the way. But if you partner with one of those organizations, you can have more confidence that you're helping in a collaborative way rather than an independent way.
Hughes: How do churches as a whole best contribute and provide “holistic care” to the local community in times of disaster?
Aten: I think the best way to do that is not to isolate the gospel from the compassion. Sometimes, churches provide for someone’s physical needs but shy away from the spiritual ones. Other times, the opposite is true, but those two pieces go hand in hand. For instance, when I was in Japan at a pastors’ conference after the 3/11 tsunami, a pastor talked about the importance of providing care to communities. One of the younger men raised his hand and said, “So it's all fine and good to go and serve tea, but when are we going to share the gospel?” The senior pastor paused for a moment and responded, “Well, what have you been sharing with your tea?” In other words, when we meet physical needs, we're providing for spiritual care, and when we provide spiritual care, we're also meeting physical needs.
Hughes: Most people think the best way to help is to jump in immediately, but is there value to a church coming in later in the process?
Aten: There is value in holding back, in waiting to serve and thinking more long-term. After the Nepal earthquake, some researchers at MIT found that giving and volunteering perfectly follows the amount of media coverage disasters get. Even worst-case catastrophes typically don't get much more than 15 days of media coverage, and after that drop-off, there’s a drop-off in giving. Disasters can take years, sometimes decades, to recover from, so I would encourage churches to help in the immediate and also to think about how to help in the long term. After every single disaster I've ever responded to and gone back a second time, people tell me, “We thought we were forgotten.”
Hughes: Because of the 24/7 news cycle and the internet, people are more aware of disasters occurring around the globe. Do you see this heightened awareness as a positive or negative thing?
Aten: I see both positive and negative to the information we have at hand. To see the need that is out there helps to raise our awareness. But at the same time, the constant awareness can also make us feel numb to those sorts of situations. It starts to become white noise and can make us less empathetic.
After every single disaster I've ever responded to and gone back a second time, people tell me, “We thought we were forgotten.”
Also, sometimes we mistake awareness for action. One morning, I was clicking through Facebook and saw several people posting things like, “Help us respond to this by liking and sharing.” That's great for raising awareness, but that's not actually responding to the need at hand. We need awareness because without it, we don't have action. But as a culture, we need to think about how to mobilize, especially social media advocacy, into true action—not just liking something on a page and then feeling as though we've done our job.
Hughes: How do we combat “compassion fatigue” from the “bad news deluge” that often overwhelms us to the point of physical and emotional shutdown?
Aten: It’s very easy for me to, at times, take in too much information. I watch the news, but when I start to notice that it's making me feel stressed or maybe hopeless or anxious, I know I need to pull back and limit the types of information I take in. There's a difference between being informed and overly immersed. You want to find that balance and know where your boundaries are.
Hughes: What would you say is the importance of building a long-term commitment with community if you truly want to help people when they're in need?
Aten: If we're really going to commit to this for the long term, we as Christians and as churches have to shift our thinking not just to be focused on resilience, but also to think more broadly and help develop the virtue of fortitude. It’s about endurance. It's about resilience in a sacred community. It's about walking with people for the long term. As a church, we do resilience really well after misfortunes, but we don't always do fortitude well.
Disasters reveal injustices in a community, but disaster ministries reveal God's grace and mercy. They prove that God can redeem pain, no matter what kind of adversity people are going through.
Editor's Note: The images in this article depict various natural disasters.