by Bob Smietana
When the water got within a foot of their house, Troy and Kristen Dickerson knew it was time to go.
Troy grabbed their four kids and waded through the floodwaters threatening their home in Richmond, Texas. As he took the kids to his truck, he told Kristin to grab “whatever is important.”
She took their wedding album and then turned to go.
“You realize how unimportant everything else is,” she said from her parents’ house, where the family camped out after Hurricane Harvey flooded their home.
It’s been an exhausting experience, say the Dickersons. But they’ve gotten through with more than a little help from Sugarland Baptist Church, where the Dickersons are longtime members.
Folks from church showed up with meals, cleaning supplies, and volunteer labor once floodwaters receded.
They also provided an emotional pickup, says Troy.
“To have all these guys show up on my doorstep was a relief,” he says.
The Dickersons are not alone. Like many disaster victims, they needed food, shelter, and a dose of kindness to help them get by, says Southern Baptist chaplain Endell Lee.
Lee, a Naval Reserve chaplain and self-described “spiritual paramedic,” spent six years as national coordinator for disaster spiritual care with the North American Mission Board.
His job: Train volunteers to “infuse faith, hope, love, grace, and comfort into the situation, so people can begin picking up the pieces and putting their lives back together.”
That grace and comfort can be found in a bottle of water or hot meal—or a listening ear. It’s especially important as people take stock of their lives after a disaster and figure out what to do next.
Spiritual first aid
As a disaster relief chaplain, Lee would often go alongside other volunteers as they cleared debris or cleaned out damaged homes.
“The chaplain is there to listen to that family tell their story—to let them vent their grief and pain—and to validate their current reality,” says Lee. By doing so, chaplains can help victims process their experience and find a way to begin rebuilding their lives.
Pastors or other church members can provide similar spiritual first aid, says Jamie Aten, executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College.
Aten, who trained church volunteers in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, says the spiritual and emotional consequences of disasters are often overlooked.
It’s easy to see the physical side—a lost home or injuries. But disasters also can cause an existential crisis. They remind victims—and the rest of us—of how fragile life can be.
“You face the reality there is a lot of life you can’t control,” says Aten. “That is really difficult for us as human beings.”
For years, Aten has surveyed disaster survivors. People who can find meaning in what happened to them will do better after a disaster, he says.
Disasters are “extreme threats” that disrupt life, according to Aten and his research colleagues.
They “jeopardize human safety, displace families, disrupt normal social interactions, violate expectancies about the predicted order of the world, and evoke a wide variety of negative psychological responses, such as fear, anxiety, and depression,” according to a 2016 article in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.
Spiritual resources can help mitigate that harm, according to a study of 485 Hurricane Katrina survivors who were adult students at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Those who found meaning in their experience had better psychological health and well-being than those who didn’t.
Another study of Katrina survivors found those who felt distant from God were less hopeful after suffering loss in a disaster than those who felt close to God. A third study also showed that those who found comfort in their faith fared better than those who did not.
A 2015 study of people affected by floods in South Carolina found positive spiritual support can lead to more resilience.
Talk less, listen more
But finding meaning takes time. Aten cautions pastors and well-meaning volunteers to avoid “bumper-sticker theology”—things that sound good but have little substance.
The best way to help is to provide for the physical needs of victims—and then pay attention as they tell their stories.
Serving meals, handing out water, or cleaning out someone’s house provides for the physical needs, says Aten. It also provides space for folks to tell their stories.
He’s often seen people come to a center that’s serving meals and tell their story to everyone they see as they walk through the line.
“They tell the same story over and over—that’s how they process what they’ve been through,” he says. “In that situation, listen more and talk less.”
The importance of showing up
When a disaster hits, showing up really matters. Aten calls it a “ministry of presence.”
He recently took a group of counselors he was training to northern Illinois, where there had been some flooding. He told them they’d be providing spiritual care—and then handed out shovels.
His point was this: You can’t provide spiritual care in an office or behind a desk. You’ve got to get out and show people you care before they will trust you, says Aten.
Pastor Kim David McCroskey agrees.McCroskey is pastor of Roaring Fork Baptist Church in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where 14 church members lost homes during wildfires in November 2016. The church’s buildings also burned to the ground.
Over the past year, he’s spent a lot of time praying with people and helping them pick up the pieces of their lives.
“You can’t convince people you are concerned unless you are willing to get your hands dirty,” he says. “If people don’t know you care, you are not going to do any good anyway.”
At first, McCroskey had to help people through the shock that followed the wildfires. For some, he says, watching their church burn down was worse than losing their homes.
Some church members haven’t been back, even though Roaring Fork began meeting in a temporary location. The church is being rebuilt, and McCroskey hopes they’ll return.
From a faith perspective, McCroskey says he knows trials will happen in life—and that they will pass. But it takes a while for people to accept that reality.
He also had to remind them that even in the midst of a disaster, the church has a role to play.
“We still have ministry to do,” he says. “The church is still here.”
Research about disasters shows “willful surrender” also can help people recover. When he studied Katrina survivors, Aten found those who were able to surrender their new circumstances to God did better.
At first, Aten thought these survivors had just given up.
“I did not like the outcomes of that study,” he says. “It reminded me of a bad country song. I thought it would lead to passive acceptance of whatever happened.”
Instead, he found surrender was actually empowering. By surrendering what they could not control to God, people were able to accept their new circumstances and make the best of things.
That’s not a simple process. A disaster can change the entire trajectory of someone’s life, says Ted Law, pastor of Access Covenant Church in Houston.
About a dozen families at the church were forced to evacuate their homes during Hurricane Harvey. Some lost all their possessions.
The storm touched almost everyone in the congregation in some way, says Law. And it left emotional scars.
One minute, life was normal. The next, the floodwaters washed everything away. People needed immediate assistance with food and shelter, he says. They also needed time to come to grips with the aftermath of the storm.
“It’s hard to process things quickly when you have lost so much,” says Law.
Access Covenant hosted a spiritual first aid training session with Aten in September to prepare the congregation to minister to neighbors over the long haul.
The church has already been helping congregation members respond to the disaster. It’s brought people together, he says.
After the storm, 20 volunteers arrived to help clean up a church member’s house.
“That will be something people remember for a long time,” he says.
The next step in recovery: helping people begin to deal with the long-term consequences.
Finances have become a major worry for folks who suffered losses in the storm. They don’t know if they’ll have enough money to rebuild or recover.
Students may have to put off going to college, because their families no longer have the resources to pay tuition, for example. Or people who’d been helping their aging parents now find themselves living with those parents.
A lot of dreams may have to be put on hold or abandoned.
“It makes a huge spiritual impact,” says Law.
Everyone can serve
Every church—no matter what size—can find a way to help victims of disaster. Some can help out with recovery efforts, says Lee. Others can give funds to help victims of disaster.
And everyone can pray.
Recovering from a disaster is a long-term process. And it can change the lives of both victims and volunteers—something Lee knows firsthand.
A longtime naval chaplain, Lee had just returned from Iraq and was living in New Orleans when Katrina hit. He’d already done disaster relief in New York after 9/11—but after Katrina, it became his full-time ministry for six years.
He says victims will need an abundance of care and hope to get through and move on with their lives. And churches can help them along the way.
“We talk a lot about faith, hope, and love,” he says. “That’s what churches can bring to disaster relief.”
For the Dickersons, being flooded out of their home taught them a lesson about faith—and about asking for help.
They’d served on mission projects in the past and prided themselves as being the kind of people who help others.
Asking for help was humbling, says Kristin.
“We are really grateful,” she says. “But it’s a little embarrassing to need help.”
Receiving help after the flood was easier when church members just showed up at their home and started working. It reminded the Dickersons that they were part of a community of faith.
Kristin says she was reminded that many of the things she took for granted could be quickly washed away. And still, she and her family would be able to make it through with God’s help.
“All this security you think you have—it’s a false sense of security. It could all be gone at any minute,” she says. “God was still good to us. He didn’t forsake us.”
BOB SMIETANA (@bobsmietana) is senior writer for Facts & Trends.