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Disaster ministries

During a catastrophe, many people turn to faith. And after a catastrophe, many turn to the faithful - including relief agencies.

Published September 9, 2004

The Southern Baptists get to the disaster site early with chain saws and mobile kitchens. Lutherans come ready to counsel the weary. The Methodists arrive later. They're in it for the long haul, three to five years.

When disaster strikes - and strikes again, in Florida's case - relief efforts cross all faiths. But some denominations have carved their own niches in disaster relief, gaining reputations as the go-to denomination for certain tasks.

The American Red Cross counts on Southern Baptists to be "initial responders," for instance. The Baptists bull their way through ravaged areas in trucks with tools and ham radios just as the storm subsides. Along with the Salvation Army, they supply food and cook thousands of hot meals for victims.

In any denomination, individual churches and members are free to volunteer however they choose. But on the national or state level, efforts are likely organized in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross or coalitions such as National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster and Church World Service. Most denominations organize cleanup efforts and donations for victims. Some, however, have one or two additional areas of disaster specialty.

Southern Baptists were cooking chicken and dumplings, corn and green beans in Central Florida within two days of Hurricane Charley. They had made more than 1-million meals there by the time Frances tore through Florida. Baptists moved to the east coast early this week to feed victims of Hurricane Frances, said the Rev. Tommy Green, president of the Florida Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church of Brandon.

Baptists started feeding victims in 1967 when Hurricane Beulah tore through the Texas coast. Men used skills they learned in camp to make hot meals. With each disaster after that, Baptists rounded up members to cook, said Mickey Caison, manager of adult volunteer mobilization for the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board. Soon, it was what they were expected to do.

Other groups also started out filling voids.

Federal agencies call the Church of the Brethren, a Christian denomination that focuses on peace, for help in areas with lots of children. The church sets up child care services in FEMA and Red Cross centers where parents apply for assistance, a process that can mean waiting hours in long lines. The kids play games and do activities that help relieve stress, such as painting, said Helen Stonesifer, who coordinates the program from her office in New Windsor, Md.

About two-dozen volunteers have operated four child care centers in Central Florida in the wake of Hurricane Charley. They rotate, working two-week shifts, but evacuated as Frances approached. About half have returned to centers in Kissimmee, Orlando, Englewood and Wauchula, Stonesifer said. She said FEMA representatives are assessing whether they'll need more facilities and child care workers for east coast victims of Frances.

The program began in 1980 when a church member was helping builders during another disaster. He saw children standing in lines with frustrated parents and encouraged his denomination to fill the need.

Since Charley, Stonesifer said, "We received a report from Florida that several children are painting black houses." The houses symbolize their trauma.

A few decades ago, Seventh-day Adventists decided to oversee warehouses that store donated goods, such as the regional response center at the Florida State Fairgrounds that opened after Charley. People from various faiths work in the warehouses, but Seventh-day members typically manage them.

"It was a needed service," said Sung Kwon, executive director for Adventist Community Services in Silver Spring, Md. "It's very difficult and labor-intensive."

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance offers emotional and spiritual counseling. The church created a disaster assistance team with trained counselors across the country. Team members train ministers and church members in disaster areas. In turn, those church leaders can counsel people in their own communities, said Stan Hankins, the church's associate for U.S. disaster response.

Volunteers counseled several pastors and lay Presbyterians in Central Florida whose homes and churches were damaged by Charley. That hurricane did harm to more Presbyterian properties than any other disaster he could remember in the past 10 years, Hankins said. Frances hit many of those same victims, he said. The church planned to dispatch more volunteers to Central Florida this week.

Lutheran Disaster Response organizes mental health and spiritual counseling. Its mental health counselors help victims cope with stress and depression, said Heather Feltman, the disaster response's executive director in Chicago. It counsels people in shelters and others sent by referral.

Spiritual counselors act as chaplains ministering to people who want faith-based care. If someone requests a different type of religious counselor - a rabbi, for instance - the counselor tries to locate one.

"It's just kind of coalesced (over the years)," Feltman said about Lutherans' disaster work with other religious groups. "It's been kind of like a symphony being put together. Where do people have their best assets?"

Lutherans and the United Church of Christ also repair or rebuild things for victims when money from insurance and federal agencies isn't enough to cover their losses.

Working in the field of "unmet needs" seemed natural for the UCC, said Bill Wealand, the disaster ministry coordinator for UCC's Florida Conference.

Members noticed that people were still asking for help months after disasters hit, many of them coming to UCC churches across the country seeking money or volunteer help.

In Florida, groups of about 60 UCC volunteers stay for a few weeks or months, before another group comes to relieve them. They pay their own expenses. Some are professional builders and carpenters offering free labor.

The Methodists used trial and error in deciding what needs their denomination should meet. At one time, they tried being initial responders, said Kristin Sachen, an assistant general secretary for the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

But it was hard for Methodists to be "the chain saw gang," she said. "To go in and do the very early disaster response takes a different system than the Methodists have, I think."

Each Methodist church and region is interconnected, unlike Southern Baptists who are largely independent. Rallying Methodist volunteers quickly from across the country is tough because communications have to go through so many channels, Sachen said.

"It was the big floods in the Midwest (1993) that we really learned how to do case management," Sachen said.

Now, the Committee on Relief trains people to be case managers. They help set up offices in devastated areas to assess victims' long-term needs. They offer grants for housing and other expenses. The committee is working with the Methodist Church's Florida Conference to set up long-term offices for Charley's, and potentially Frances', victims. Once they settle in, Methodists expect to stay three to five years.

Methodist case managers are still working in New York with victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks - three years after the fact, Sachen said.

Long-term work fits the Methodists style. "It's the way we do things," Sachen said, "having the patience to be the last one out."

-- Sharon Tubbs can be reached at 727 892-2253 or

[Last modified September 8, 2004, 15:27:08]

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