Today’s post is by David Crosby, pastor of First Baptist Church of New Orleans, Louisiana, who shepherded his flock and others in his community in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Following any disaster, pastors find there are spiritual and emotional needs of persons in their community who may have experienced life-changing disaster, as well as the needs of the church itself. How we shepherd through these times will have both immediate and lasting impact in people’s lives.
Determine where your people are and how they are doing. Do this systematically. You don’t want to overlook anyone, and everyone wants the church to be thorough in its care for all members. We developed a social media site—such as they were back then—to help our people in their dialogues. People posted on the website how and what they were doing. There was a lot of uncertainty about who was back and who was not, who had flooded and who had not.
The staff was also a point of great concern–where they were and how they were doing. We lost half of our ministry staff either immediately after the storm or shortly thereafter. You may want to post a report on the status of your church staff.
The importance of fellowship and sharing experiences cannot be overstated. Our people wanted to talk to one another when they came to church, catching up on damage assessment and current status. We decided to let them talk and started our services 10-20 minutes after the advertised start time for a couple of months. We didn’t tell anyone we were doing this. But the roar of conversation before church indicated to us that it was a deep need for our people.
Be prepared for a lot of tears near the surface. We all wept through the first couple of worship services. The songs moved us in unusual ways. Some of them I just couldn’t sing. But they were very helpful in acknowledging the suffering we were going through and setting it in the context of our faith.
Encourage prayer. Our invitation time after the message was much more about praying for one another. The public prayers were also about persons in our faith community and needs that were close to us as well as prayer for the larger community.
Understand the overwhelming needs. Every day is a brand new avalanche of need. You cannot keep up with it all. And you will not be getting much regular church work done for a while.We gave up on planning things and just lived one minute at a time. We prayed together and worked together. Your staff and key volunteers will want to be out there helping people. We all led volunteer teams in the mud out effort.
We eventually had to develop a Home Recovery Ministry that was funded by a grant from the state office. We employed six people for two years in leading volunteer teams into the flood zone. At some point the staff will need to return to the work of ministry that is more usual. That transition may already be happening or it may be out there in the future.
Give special attention to financial accountability. You are likely to receive financial support from a variety of sources. Be very careful in keeping up with these donations and send thank you cards our emails to those who help out. Use the money carefully to help those in need.
One day during recovery, $30,000 in cash was discovered by volunteers while they were gutting a home. The cash, all decades old, was stuffed in the bathroom wall and ended up scattered everywhere during the mud out process. They called and asked me what to do. The homeowner was still evacuated. I told them to call the police and the news media. It made a great vignette. It kept things in the bright light of day. And it protected the volunteers and others from accusations of theft.
Realize you will be saying goodbye. People will be moving permanently. This is one of the realities of major natural disasters. Schools and other institutions cannot simply start back up without facilities to do so. The staff of schools and businesses may be depleted. As people leave the fellowship it is important to acknowledge their departure and pray for them in their journey.
Some people will experience guilt about leaving the flood zone. They should be encouraged to follow God’s path for them without guilt. Some who stay may be angry with people or with God because they are losing their friends. This is part of the pain of the disaster. And it isn’t only your members. Pastors will experience the discouragement of losing their friends. They will also experience the problems of losing key lay-leaders. Your church will not look the same as it did before the storm—it may be significantly smaller than before.
Say hello. People will be arriving to help. Greeting them and expressing gratitude for their help is important. They are not giving of their time in order to receive gratitude, but it helps the church realize that God is providing for us even in the turmoil and chaos.
Organizing to help with relief is different than rescue. The rescue phase is probably over. The relief phase is going to last for months as people who are working and living in the flood zone try to restore their lives. Your church should probably try to organize to help with this effort. And you are a natural contact point for many who want to come from churches outside the flood zone.
Process the many requests from organizations and individuals, then decide what it is you are able to do. You may be geographically positioned to help in some way. Your facilities may lend themselves to housing volunteers or distributing water, food, diapers, and cleaning supplies. These decisions are part of the relief effort.
WARNING: clothing distribution is problematic. Unless you have volunteers who want to organize and maintain a clothes closet, you will end up with mounds of unsorted clothing that will not help anyone. Although some may be able to do so, most churches should probably not try to do clothes distribution.
Volunteers are coming. Volunteers were a big part of our experience. We actually deployed 22,000 volunteers to projects we were managing during the relief and recovery effort. Volunteers can definitely help with cleaning up after the flood. They can move dead cars, cut up downed trees, mud out flooded homes, clean up parks and other public facilities, etc. They were a big blessing for New Orleans and all the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. They brought not only labor but also money to help with our recovery.
You’ll have to decide how you are going to handle these volunteers. Are you going to house and feed them? Do you have the shower and bathroom facilities required? You’ll have to decide if you are going to actually deploy them to projects. Your own members may have homes that are flooded. Are you going to help them cleanup? If so, volunteers can lend a big hand.
You may need to establish priorities for your work: members first, then relatives and friends of members, etc. You will get requests from random people you do not know. You may get more requests than you can handle. People will end up on the lists of multiple helping agencies. Maintaining an active list of needs is important. Removing people who get help elsewhere is just as important as adding those in need.
You are not alone in your troubles. Many partners want to help. If you are Southern Baptist, tap your association, state, and national SBC entities. Cooperate with the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief. If you put together a coordinated effort that is effective in helping people, you are likely to secure funds to continue and expand that effort.
Helping residents, not residences. We decided early on that it was not our job or our expertise to determine whether a home could be saved or should be demolished. Homeowners were adamant that they wanted to rescue their belongings and their houses. We helped them as best we could.
One man came with U-Haul truck to get his stuff. He ended up putting what he could save from his home in a small trashcan.
Taking care of yourself and your family. The relief and recovery efforts may last for months, so you will need to get out of the flood zone occasionally just to unburden yourself and experience a more “normal” context. It was a relief to see a community that was functioning as intended.
My wife and I will never forget a week of retreat provided for us in northern California. It was just the reprieve we needed in the midst of our disaster. Before Hurricane Katrina I lived on pleasant and quiet Marseilles Place. The winds of the storm broke in half the street sign at our corner, so for several years I lived on “Mars.” And that is just how it felt. With the barber, the grocer, the school, and the gym closed, we just made do. Even a walk in the neighborhood seemed strange. The staccato of nail guns was a continual soundtrack. Stinking freezers and refrigerators sat on the curbs for months. Ruined sheetrock peeled from studs and piled on the curb made its way into the streets. The cars and trucks crushed it as they passed, then whipped it up into the air for joggers to breathe.
Your family is living through an era of higher stress, great expense, and uncomfortable adjustments. They need to know you are there for them.
Community service. Volunteer groups vary in their skill sets and capabilities. Remember that many volunteers can be deployed to help clean up public places like schools, parks, and green spaces. The neighborhood and community will remember how you helped restore these public places.
Be prepared for the unexpected. You cannot anticipate all needs or problems. It helped me to imagine myself as a missionary in a Third World setting where public service was weak or nonexistent, people were living hand to mouth, and the many volunteers needed useful work to do.
Don’t fret over your interrupted schedule. You may need to minimize the structure of your day because unexpected things will happen.
Pray with people as you help them in practical ways. People recovering from disaster generally know they need prayer. As a result, many doors are open now that would have been closed to the gospel ministry before the flood. It’s safe to assume that your spiritual help will be welcomed. Ask for prayer requests from those you help, then stop and pray for them.
Your follow up with victims of the flood will be greatly appreciated. If you remember them in their time of need, they will remember you.
Featured image from Hurricane Harvey, edited.