Four Ways You and Your Congregation Can Respond to Disaster

The recent mammoth floods in and around Houston as a result of Hurricane Harvey has left us all reeling. The overwhelming images of devastation and suffering that we see bring us to despair.

Relief workers struggle relentlessly to handle the unimaginable onslaught. Deprived of sleep, subsisting on an inadequate diet, confronted by unimaginable horrors, some quickly break down and many both workers and victims will require trauma counseling and professional help.

We, like those more closely involved, are overwhelmed by our inability to respond.

Our faith is rocked by disasters like this and we need to provide tools for our congregations to help them process their questions and cope with their grief.

Four Ways to Respond to Disaster

How do we believe in a loving God while grieving with so many of my brothers and sisters who have lost loved ones and livelihoods? Yet we know God is not absent.

1. Pour Out Grief

First, encourage people to pour out their grief. Read a psalm of lament like Psalm 69 as a congregation and give people time to reflect on the words and then discuss them. Acknowledging our grief helps us deal with our pain and find healing.

2. Ask the Right Questions

Second, help people ask the right questions. “Why does God allow disasters like this to happen?” is not helpful. There is no easy answer and it makes us feel powerless to do anything.

When we ask: “Where is God in the midst of this disaster?” it helps people identify the acts of God in the midst of pain and suffering not only increasing faith, but also stirring response. It takes us from passive observers to active participants.

In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit talks about the extraordinary communities that arise in the midst of disaster. Calamity doesn’t bring out the worst in us she contends, it brings out the best. Resourcefulness, generosity and joy arise to shine brightly in the midst of all kinds of horrifying situations.

The joy in disaster comes, when it comes, from an affection that is not private and personal but civic. The love of strangers for each other, of a citizen for his or her city, of belonging to a greater whole, of doing the work that matters.

“That’s it!” I thought as I watched the news about Hurricane Harvey. Strangers have become neighbors. Across barriers of class and race and religion people are showing they care. The outpouring of financial support and the number of volunteers responding for flood victims in Texas has been phenomenal.

It always amazes me when people drop everything to risk there lives for someone they don’t know and will probably never see again. It is like the parable of the Good Samaritan being lived out in our midst. Heroic rescues, sacrificial acts, generous giving, this is the image of God welling up from within us and shining light in the darkness.

This is our loving caring God reaching out compassionately through the helping hands and aching hearts of all of us who are created in God’s image. Why disasters happen we don’t know but God is there grieving, loving and caring in and through us.

3. Pray—Even if You Don’t Have the Right Words

Third, we need to pray, but many of us don’t have the right words. I wrote this prayer as a response to Hurricane Sandy a couple of years ago but have revised it recently in response to Hurricane Harvey. People often don’t know how to form their own prayers, and prayers like this can be both comforting and inspirational.

4. Respond as a Congregation

Fourth, we need to encourage response. I suggest that we help our congregations consider three ways to respond.

The Emergency Response

First, there is the emergency response. God calls all of us to be Good Samaritans, to give what we can and do what is possible to reach out. Share stories of people you know who have become involved and the impact it has made. Then provide concrete suggestions of how your congregation can be God’s compassionate hands reaching out to help.

The Long Term Response

Second we need to consider long term responses. Discuss with your congregations how to help those who are struggling rebuild their lives maybe sending mission teams to build with Habitat for Humanity.

Raising Awareness

Third, this disaster provides a great platform for raising awareness and involvement in the lives of the marginalized around the world. The typhoon season which hit India, Pakistan and Bangladesh at the same time that Hurricane Harvey was raging displaced 41 million people and left over 1,200 dead. Are there ways that we could respond to our global neighbors too as a result of our increased awareness of the devastation of disaster?

Disaster blots out the sun but allows the light that is within each of us to shine to its full potential… not alone but together, with the many other lights that surround us.

In the process it gives us direction – a clear path towards the kind of interdependent, caring life that God intends for all of us.

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Christine Sine
Christine Sine is the executive director of Mustard Seed Associates, a small community based organization with a passion for sustainability, simplicity, spirituality and hospitality. She is a keen gardener, and an author who loves to help people connect their spiritual practices to their everyday life. Her latest books are Return to Our Senses: Reimagining How We Pray and To Garden With God. She blogs at Godspace.
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