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Disaster as ministry opportunity

Angela Reitsma Bick: An interview with psychologist Jamie D. Aten

Did you see churches respond quickly and well to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma? 

  Jamie Aten meets with survivors in Houston following the hurricane

Yes. I was just in Houston last weekend to run a training event and had the opportunity to meet with local pastors and church leaders there, and was encouraged by the various ways churches were finding to help and support survivors in their communities. 

Pastor Bo Pugh of Cinco Ranch Church of Christ told me about his church’s response as a commitment to “own their mile.” Even though their church was gutted out inside from flood water they looked around them and identified the needs they saw, and looked for ways to help meet them. For example, several women in the church coordinated hundreds of meals, countless supplies and teams of volunteers. 

Is there really a greater likelihood of weather-related disasters now than 50 years ago?
Yes, statistics show that disasters are on the rise and have been for some time. According the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, natural disasters have increased in numbers by nearly 400 percent globally since 1985. The total number of people impacted by disaster is predicted to double to two billion by 2050. 
What one thing can churches do before a crisis to reduce the risks?
I’m a big proponent of disaster ministry – no matter where you live, there are risks your church should be prepared for. I wrote a book on this subject (Disaster Ministry Handbook, Intervarsity Press) that lays it out in detail for churches that want to get started. I believe disasters are a biblical justice issue and that as Christians we are called to help the vulnerable.

Disasters are especially hard on the poor, very old, the very young, people with disabilities and marginalized groups, so make sure you’re aware of who in your congregation may need additional help. If you really want to build disaster resilience, look to where the biggest need is in your community and identify who is most vulnerable. Start by helping those that need help the most. 
How can I help a loved one in suffering far away? 
Listening well is one of the most important things we can do for people who are suffering. Everyone worries about saying “the right thing,” but more than anything survivors need to feel heard and understood. Acknowledge their pain, and be willing to listen to the hard stuff without trying to solve their problems or offering platitudes. Just show that you are there, and will be there for them. You don’t have to be perfect, it’s more important to be present. Your presence will help more than anything you could say. 
Anything else you’d like to add?
People tend to turn to the church first – even before emergency professionals or relief organizations – after these kinds of events. There is such a huge need for Christian leaders who are prepared to effectively, holistically meet the needs left behind in the wake of disasters. We recently launched a new MA in Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College Graduate School to help prepare the next generation of humanitarian and disaster professionals to lead with faith and humility, utilize evidence-based practice and serve the most vulnerable and the Church globally. Learn more at wheaton.edu/HDL. For lots of free downloadable resources also visit our resource page at wheaton.edu/HDI.   


Jamie D. Aten is the founder and Executive Director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute, the first faith-based academic disaster research centre in the U.S









  • Angela became Editor of CC in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for CC to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three children.

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