When Disaster Strikes: COMMAnts from the Conference Minister

Some in the Conference already know this but others may not: living through an overwhelming natural disaster is part of my story and faith journey.

Sixteen years ago, I was serving as executive director of Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi, when Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast and destroyed everything in its path. Seven of eight of the service buildings that were part of Back Bay Mission’s campus back then were rendered a total loss; it took 18 months to repair the one building still standing. The entire region the Mission had then served for 90 years was devastated, the poorest communities that were the Mission’s closest neighbors flattened. It was several excruciating years before the Gulf Coast community — its neighborhoods and families and organizations and infrastructure – resembled anything like “recovered.”

That experience was simultaneously the most traumatic of my life and the most inspiring. The deep and multi-layered loss, coupled with the enormity of practical challenges the disaster introduced into everyday life and work, was horrific and left its lasting scars. But it was also during those years that the Body of Christ continually showed up in every way that mattered to bring healing and restoration: generous dollars, extraordinary volunteerism, steady and enduring presence.

I can’t help but reflect on that experience of many years ago when I watch now the wide-spread ruin Hurricane Ida has brought to Louisiana and parts of Mississippi, including areas where UCC ministries reside. I know something about what they’re now witnessing, and my heart aches when I think of all they have ahead of them. Their pain and recovery journey will stretch far beyond the normal attention spans of our media and most of us.

So I invite you today to find ways over the coming days, months, and years to be for them (and for all the other places where fires and floods have left their mark) the same amazing Church that I saw show up 16 years ago: generous, attentive, and present. Here are some tips about how we can best respond based on my experience all those years ago:

  • Don’t send “stuff.” Our natural first response is often to send clothing and other such goods. After Katrina, so much clothing, etc. showed up unasked for that it was indiscriminately dumped in empty parking lots, left out in the elements for weeks. It was not good stewardship of those who donated, and it was not helpful for those whom it was intended. Before you send “stuff” to the disaster area, be sure a reputable agency has actually asked for it and has a plan for storing and distributing it.
  • Do send money…but be wise about who you send it to. The United Church of Christ works with ecumenical agencies and partners on the ground in impacted areas to ensure the best use of dollars donated. A specific appeal for Hurricane Ida recovery has just been issued by the UCC.  (You can find ways to respond to other disasters also on the disaster ministries website.) Remember that your gifts any time to One Great Hour of Sharing, one of the four special mission offerings of the UCC, supports disaster ministries year-round (and refugee services and other work). Learn more about OGHS and be sure your congregation participates. If you give money through other disaster relief/recovery organizations, be sure they work directly with organizations in the impacted areas and are giving to needs those local groups have identified. Lots of groups swoop into disaster-impacted areas with their own agendas and don’t helpfully interact with local residents and leaders.
  • There will come a time for the work of rebuilding housing and neighborhoods when our volunteerism will be sought, but that time isn’t yet. What’s happening now is immediate relief work. Disaster recovery is different and it’s long-term. It takes time for local communities to organize and prepare to receive and house lots of volunteer groups. Be patient as the most helpful and needed opportunities for hands-on service become more clear over the coming months.
  • Lend your prayers. People and communities impacted by disasters face indescribable, demoralizing challenges and losses. And natural disasters right now are compounded by the continuing rise of COVID-19. These areas and people need our ceaseless prayers and to know they are not forgotten by those of us outside of the disaster-ridden area.

There is no way around the fact that a whole swath of our nation’s people is now experiencing unimaginable trauma and loss in the wake of Hurricane Ida. In the coming months and years, we can be the Church at our best by lending hope, help, and generosity. May it be so.

The Minnesota Conference UCC stewards God’s gifts, leveraging our resources to accomplish our collective mission in the world.