IN TIMES OF NEED
Compassion in Response to Local Disasters
by Jim Bahr
As people of compassion, our hearts go out to all those impacted by disasters. Whatever the crisis – hurricane, earthquake, wildfire, tornado, flood, tsunami, acts of violence – there are always ways to express God-desired compassion and love in practical actions.
When disasters occur, in times of crisis, our immediate thoughts are naturally with our home and immediate family. Then, our thoughts likely turn to the members of our ecclesia and others whose faith we share in the affected areas. In this latter case, however, it’s likely your ecclesia has some sort of phone or communication chain – this should be used appropriately. No one in the midst of a crisis feels mentally or emotionally equipped to answer 20-30 phone calls, as well meaning as they are, when they’re simply trying to cope with the situation. Once your safety and the safety of your loved ones have been assured, check in with your neighbours in the affected areas.
Among ecclesial members and friends who have been impacted, you may be able to offer assistance beyond just a check in. Do they need use food? Are prepared meals appropriate and practical? Maybe transportation. Maybe they need someone to take care of the children for a while, or the family pet. If they were forced to evacuate, perhaps they need a place to stay that is a step up from a disaster shelter invite them to stay at your home, provide them with a sense of safety and stability. Let them talk or cry through their fears and traumas. Be a good and empathetic listener.
We are all aware of the great work done by the Red Cross, mostly by volunteers. The Salvation Army (salvationarmyusa.org and salvationarmy.ca) also does great work in the midst of crises, and in normal times as well. The United Way supports a wide range of smaller charities, some of which might be active in disaster relief. The Red Cross, the Salvation Army and United Way have the resources at hand to jump in to do whatever needs doing, but they still need donations to replenish those resources for the next crisis.
A caution. If your best possible response is a financial donation, choose a charity that you know about, and have heard about. In disasters, sadly, some new charities suddenly show up. Some may be really good, but some can be “fake” – trying to get your cash for the founder without actually doing much good. At the minimum, check them out at a site like charitynavigator.com.
The Red Cross conducts most of its crisis activities with volunteers. Volunteers make up 90% of the Red Cross’ efforts in the US. These are trained volunteers, so if you find yourself wishing you could help, the right step is to sign up as a Red Cross volunteer now to be ready for the next time (redcross.org in the US and redcross.ca in Canada, each site has a page or two on volunteering).
For the US, a good list of additional disaster-response charities can be found at the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters. You might find a group that seems a better fit for you.
Finally, remember that financial support and volunteer workers are likely to be needed long after a disaster. The media loses interest pretty fast.
The needs continue for weeks and months and longer.
It’s also quite likely that there are things you can do in a crisis that can’t be planned or trained for, that only you can figure out at the time. Nonetheless, be sure to coordinate with the trained people and charities on the scene.
Consider two stories from 9/11 (I am writing this on Sept. 11, 2020):
Stephen Siller was a New York City fireman who lived in Brooklyn. He had just gotten off his regular shift and was looking forward to a game of golf with his brothers when he heard that the World Trade Center was burning. He went back to the firehouse to get his gear, called home to have his wife tell his brothers he wouldn’t be there and started driving to Manhattan. He got to the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel and found it closed. He got out of his car, strapped on his 60 pounds of gear and started walking the two miles, through the tunnel to the burning towers to help in rescues. As a trained fireman, he could quickly coordinate with those already on the scene. He died there.
Charles Cook lived in Harlem. He was 59 years old, retired. He heard about the Twin Towers. All public transit in New York was closed and people were walking as fast as possible north, away from the Towers in southern Manhattan. Charles set out, but heading south, toward the Towers. Ten miles of walking later he arrived and started helping other volunteers in rescues, digging people out of the rubble. He stayed and stayed. He spent the night sleeping on the floor of a nearby business, and stayed there for most of the next three months. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Charles went there. He died aged 79 in late August 2020.
Which of these three [the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan] do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37).