Faith, hope, clarity in a disaster

Some believers are more prepared than others if a crisis strikes.

Published August 26, 2006

When Jehovah’s Witnesses ended up at Houston’s Astrodome with thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees, elders set out to find the tired, dirty and frightened believers. After three hours of searching the arena, they had to ask Red Cross officials to make an announcement to help round up “all who are baptized Jehovah’s Witnesses,’’ so they could take the evacuees to their very own relief center.

Across the country, religious organizations have instituted plans to deal with disasters such as hurricanes, terrorism and even disturbances during worship. Some groups have sweeping guidelines that are expected to be followed by every congregation and individual member. Others have more hands-off policies that simply encourage members to follow the directions of authorities.

Common are plans to provide material, spiritual and emotional help.

“It is part of the DNA of religious organizations to help in times of disaster,’’ said Robert Hodgson, dean of the Nida Institute for biblical scholarship with the American Bible Society. “Our 23rd Psalm says, 'Though I walk in the valley of death, the Lord is my Shepherd.’ The eyes, ears and hands of that Shepherd are religious organizations such as the Salvation Army, Catholic Relief Services and the American Bible Society,’’ he said in an e-mail.

Some churches, like Pass-a-Grille Beach Community in St. Pete Beach, don’t have extensive disaster plans. Members are expected to heed instructions to evacuate, the Rev. Keith Haemmelmann said. The United Church of Christ congregation will communicate with members by e-mail, voice mail and through its Web site, but currently has no system to check on members after a disaster, he said.

“If the county government says, 'Go,’ go,’’ is what Calvary Chapel in Pinellas Park advises its members, said associate Pastor Bob Corry. “But we do have over 100 small groups that meet in various homes, and if there is a call to respond in some way, we could get the word out in some way to our congregation.’’

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) is intensely involved in helping its members prepare for emergencies. The church’s Guide to Provident Living (providentliving.org) offers advice that includes what kind of food to store and how it should be stored.

“From the founding of our church, even in our earliest writings, Prophet Joseph Smith taught, 'If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear,’ ’’ said Joseph Meyers, president the church’s St. Petersburg Stake, which includes congregations in Pinellas and western Pasco County.

Mormons are supposed to store a year’s worth of food, or at the very least, enough for a few months, to get them through disasters that can include hurricanes, illness or job loss. A storehouse in Plant City stocks everything for emergencies, from food to generators. More recently, the church has been emphasizing that members prepare a 72-hour kit for survival until aid arrives.

His job is to make sure congregations are prepared to cope if there’s a disaster, said David Biliter, emergency preparedness coordinator for the St. Petersburg Stake. Biliter, a member of the Palm Harbor ward, or congregation, said he helps to make sure there is a communications system for church members from Pinellas to west Pasco.

Members are encouraged to develop relationships outside church activities and to visit one another once a month with spiritual encouragement and fellowship. In an emergency, the established relationships practically guarantee easy contact.

“It’s like a phone tree,’’ said Tonia Fuller director of public affairs for the St. Petersburg Stake. Fuller said she and her family were living in New York during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and she immediately called the five women she normally visited to make sure they were safe.

Jehovah’s Witnesses recently established a formal system that uses small Bible study groups as key links in a chain of contacts. On Sept. 11, 2001, said Charles Wolfersberger, a spokesman who lives in Seminole, “We couldn’t contact everybody.’’ This new, formal system will help Jehovah’s Witnesses keep in touch before and after an emergency, he said. “We want to know where they are. We want to help. We want not only a local number, but a phone number out of state,’’ he said.

The religious group also prepares for disasters by training followers in the building trades, so they can help repair or reconstruct homes of fellow believers and those outside their religious community as well. Their Regional Building Committees, which build the group’s centers of worship, or Kingdom Halls, are mobilized for disasters. Volunteers repaired more than 5,000 homes damaged during last year’s hurricane season, Wolfersberger said. The last 266, in New Orleans, were only approved for repair by city officials on July 1, but work is expected to be complete in a few weeks, he said.

Like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, more traditional Christian denominations provide disaster aid to members and nonmembers in the United States and overseas.

Locally, the Rev. Jim Gerhart, an Episcopal priest who volunteered in hurricane-ravaged Mississippi, is offering a program to congregations and civic groups to help people prepare for such emergencies.

Key is listening to emergency management officials, said Gerhart, who added that he’d also like to help people save their treasured memories and important papers.

“I saw a lot of things in Southern Mississippi, but one of the things that really stayed in my memory was a World War II-era wedding photograph lying in a ditch. I bet they don’t have a negative,’’ he said. “What I propose to churches and civic groups is, because many of your senior citizens are not computer literate, what I propose is that they set up times so people can bring their pictures and their deeds and titles that are then scanned into the computer. Then when a disaster happens and you have to evacuate, all of these treasured memories are on a CD and you’ll have those and it’s not a big decision: 'What do I take with me?’ ’’

The help that religious groups offer is often more than material. Jehovah’s Witnesses provide emotional and spiritual aid as well, Wolfersberger said. “After a disaster, elders from adjacent areas volunteer their time to provide personal encouragement, support and other help as appropriate,’’ he said.

The American Bible Society distributed more than 1.5-million pieces of Scripture during Katrina, Hodgson said, “because (we) want people in crisis to remember a powerful message of the Bible: God is with us always, even in times of crisis and disaster.’’