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F-Williams Unprecedented ... historic ... record-setting.

These descriptors have become constants in recent headlines, specifically describing the increase in the frequency and severity of natural and man-made disasters throughout the world. Stories of flooding, wildfires, drought, unrelenting heat waves, earthquakes and tornadoes have filled the media.

As a physician, I have spent 25 years organizing and leading medical teams on trips to a number of major world disasters in more than 100 nations throughout the world. Today I sense an urgency to challenge and prepare individuals and churches to be ready for these natural and man-made disasters. My experience responding to tsunami victims, earthquake survivors, refugees, etc., has shown me that by equipping our churches for disaster response, we can demonstrate the love of Jesus as we become salt and light to our communities. 

A Powerful Model for Disaster Response

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When disaster strikes, how should your church respond? What role should you play? Should your church be a designated shelter? Does your church have a networking plan to collaborate with other churches in times of disasters?

In my experience, the Austin Disaster Relief Network (ADRN), based in Austin, Texas, has created a model of networking churches for disaster response from which we all can learn. My hope is that their model will challenge you and your church to develop a similar network in your community.

For example, in September 2011 wildfires destroyed more than 1,700 homes in Central Texas, devastating three small towns and impacting one-third of those living in these communities. In the aftermath, ADRN quickly responded, providing emergency officials with more than 300 trained Critical Incident Stress Management volunteers and 125 pastors to debrief more than 1,400 traumatized individuals as they returned to their communities. 

The Network quickly implemented a call center filled with praying Christian responders and managed an estimated 500 to 750 calls per day in the first three to five days. An army of volunteers began the cleanup of more than 125 homes. ADRN’s churches also opened and managed more than 100,000 square feet of warehouse space to meet the immediate demands for organized donation relief. To date, the Network, founded less than four years ago by Daniel Geraci, has now trained more than 3,000 volunteers in more than 115 churches.

What makes this organization’s model so effective and powerful? One aspect is the Network’s ultimate goal to adopt families affected by disasters through the network of churches. Thus far, churches in the Network have adopted more than 500 families, helping to rebuild homes and lives. Additionally, disaster funds given to ADRN are then funneled back to the churches that have adopted families. This process ties the aid to the families with the local church; often, friends and neighbors will administer the assistance. The Network continues to report that families receiving help through the local church often become much more open to the gospel. 

In my experience, I’ve found the same to be true. One of the most effective ways to bring people to Jesus is through meeting practical needs of hurting people—particularly in times of disaster. I have seen thousands of people receive Christ through the medical mission efforts I have led and have long viewed my involvement with medical missions and medical care during disaster relief efforts as being the point of contact between Jesus and hurting people in crisis.

Another crucial element leading to the Network’s effectiveness is the extensive ongoing training it offers to churches, leaders and volunteers—including nationally and internationally recognized FEMA-backed Community Emergency Response Team training (CERT) and Critical Incident Stress Management training (CISM). I believe CISM training is critical for church volunteers who want to counsel with victims traumatized by disasters. 

Other training includes a six-week DVD individual and family preparedness course called “Preparedness Peace,” HAM radio training, CPR/first aid training, chaplaincy training, four different spiritual training courses and specific leadership trainings. Preparedness training can provide a potentially life-saving impact on your church and community. 

Churches at the Center of Preparedness: Why and How

Current research indicates that only 5 to 10 percent of the nation’s population is prepared for a natural or man-made disaster. This lack of preparedness puts our entire local and national disaster response plans and capabilities at risk of being overwhelmed. We saw it when Katrina ravaged the Gulf. 

Churches can and should play a significant role in increasing the percentage of people who are prepared physically and spiritually for the challenges that lie ahead for our nation and world. This kind of preparation will enhance the efforts of your church to bring people to faith in Jesus.

11 Reasons for Your Church to Engage in Disaster Relief

  1. Churches inspire trust. They can provide a setting in which many people come to know and trust each other, giving disaster victims a legitimate place to find help and heal.
  2. Worship services provide necessary communication channels. They become a setting where information can be disseminated and education and training can happen. Most people haven’t taken the time to prepare for disasters due to the time and effort required. Doing this through your church would be particularly helpful for those who work long hours, for those who lead single-parent families, and for the elderly and other special-needs individuals.
  3. Churches know how to mobilize volunteer leadership. Identify and recruit a volunteer to spearhead the disaster relief effort and take the load off the pastoral staff. Members specializing in disaster response can share valuable information and training with other church members.
  4. Churches can identify special-needs parishioners. During emergencies, develop plans to assist those with special needs (single-parent families, the elderly and those who are physically disabled). Identify people with special needs and make plans to check on and assist them.
  5. Churches establish compassionate ministries. Start a food pantry and clothing storage area for those who are in need—both within your congregation and for your community.
  6. Church buildings can function as a community shelter. In times of emergencies and disasters, churches are often used as community shelters. Before disaster strikes, check with your city or town on what’s needed to designate your building as an official emergency shelter.
  7. Churches provide comfort and spiritual solace.During disaster, churches are a logical place for many people to seek solace, comfort and spiritual help.
  8. Churches can network with community disaster response efforts. Develop established relationships within your community and be able to respond in a coordinated way with local emergency agencies (like Austin Disaster Relief Network’s model).
  9. Churches teach their people to share their faith. With training, the ministerial staff can teach and train people how to share their faith in times of crisis.
  10. Churches can take an active role in cooperating with local disaster response organizations. Look for and develop formal partnerships with local Emergency Operation Centers, Citizen Councils, NVOAD (National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters) and FEMA.
  11. A church can cooperate with other churches and compassionate ministries. Networks of churches working together in compassionate ministries before disaster strikes will be much more effective through their combined efforts in the wake of a disaster or crisis.

Churches of Any Size

Some larger churches have disaster relief programs, but many do not.  Some respond only after the fact with no real coordinated process, making their response efforts less effective and less efficient. And many denominations, such as the Salvation Army, have some type of disaster relief program. The North American Mission Board has one of the most vigorous and extensive disaster relief programs. The Assemblies of God have MAPS (Mission America Placement Service). Regardless of your church’s size, you have the ability to impact your community as you respond to people in their greatest need and darkest time. The following two stories of how small churches responded to disaster illustrate the power of engagement.

Randy Barton is the visionary pastor of Anchor Baptist Church in Brevard, N.C. In 1985, the small church began a food bank to meet local needs, particularly those of the elderly. When Hurricane Hugo hit North Carolina in 1989, Anchor Baptist responded to the call for relief workers. This started the church on an intentional path of growing compassionate ministry. In 2006, Anchor Baptist built a 17,500-square-foot modern warehouse that doubles as a disaster shelter, with hot water pipes underneath to warm the floors. The warehouse can shelter hundreds of people at one time and has its own generator and water source, as well as good bathroom facilities. The church has organized boxes for meals, clothing for children, home supplies, personal care, baby care and cleanup. They’ve identified crews for chainsaw operations, carpentry, heavy equipment and transportation.

Anchor Baptist long ago shifted from just meeting local needs to being a hub to supply many other ministries and churches with basic relief supplies. The network that Anchor Baptist has developed includes hundreds of churches and compassionate ministries. 

Another church making an impact—literally around the world—is Evangel Worship Center located in Concord, N.C. Founded in October 1994, Evangel began with a handful of people. Pastor Thant McManus shared with me how compassionate ministries began at his church: “We formed the church in October and on that Thanksgiving shared the love of God with our neighbors by providing enough food for about 1,000 meals,” he said. “The event was so successful that the next month at Christmas, we almost doubled the number of families we touched with the love of God. 

“We purchased our first building in 1995, and, like many ministries do, dedicated a room to hold clothing and food for those in our community. In 2002, we moved to our current facility, a converted 60,000-square-foot warehouse with pallet racks and forklifts. We use part of the building for our sanctuary, classrooms and offices, and part to store our aid.

“Now each month, we send out multiple short-term teams. One to two teams are going into places such as China, Haiti, Mexico, Guatemala, Macedonia, Africa and numerous others. We outfit teams from other churches and ministries as well.”

Note the characteristics common to the experience of these two smaller congregations in developing their compassionate ministries and disaster response capabilities:

  1. Both started small, and the outreaches naturally grew to meet the expanding opportunities to minister to those in need.
  2. Both have established local community relationships, as well as national compassionate ministry relationships.
  3. Both ministries have been recognized by local, state and national governmental agencies.
  4. Both have been designated to fill particular niches in relief work and disaster response in their local communities.
  5. Both have become a hub to provide food, clothing and supplies for other churches and ministries.
  6. Both provide supplies to teams addressing international needs as well as relief work in the United States.

We face storms on the horizon in these last days. As you lead and prepare your church to be a true beacon of light amid increasingly dark times, let me encourage you with a couple of Scripture passages:

 “A sensible man watches for problems ahead and prepares to meet them. The simpleton never looks and suffers the consequences” (Prov. 27:12, TLB).

 “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust’” (Ps. 91:1-2, NIV).   

Dr. Paul Williams has felt a calling to use medicine and compassionate ministries as a way to express the love of Jesus to hurting people around the world. His experiences during more than 25 years in medical missions in 105 nations gives him a unique perspective on world events and human suffering. His book, When All Plans Fail, guides church leaders through the process of disaster preparedness and relief.

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