Thursday, May 30, 2013

Shelter from the Storm

In 1999 a tornado struck downtown Salt Lake City. It was unprecedented and unpredicted. Yet locals responded almost instantly with disaster relief. The primary reason was credited to the Mormon Church's teachings on preparedness. From the AP: "For decades, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have urged members, which make up about 70 percent of Utah's population, to stockpile a year's supply of food as a hedge against the unexpected. Before survivalism was popular, Utah companies sold food in 40-pound bags, 100-hour candles, and water storage barrels. And the church has a silo filled with 19 million pounds of wheat just in case normal distribution systems break down."

A couple of years ago a wildfire forced several evacuations south of us and a local high school was one of the evacuation centers. That high school was only a mile and half from our church building. it seemed like a perfect opportunity to serve- to deliver food, clothes or blankets or just to be present to provide comfort through prayer. But we did none of that. Why? One, because we weren't prepared and two, because our church facility isn't centrally located in the community no one was physically near to respond.

I don't share this out of disappointment, but rather with the benefit of hindsight to consider what we can learn and what we can do better.

Bobby Ross Jr wrote an article in Christianity Today on the response of faith-based organizations to the tornado that hit Moore, OK. What was fascinating in that post was how different denominations and organizations had their particular niche. You didn't have twenty different organizations all bringing fresh water; some groups specialized in preparing and distributing meals, others in medical care, others in meeting basic needs of clothing and shelter, and still others specializing in grief counseling.

So what lessons can we learn from Salt Lake City and Moore, OK?

  • Don't take on too much.
Obviously it is too much to ask a single congregation, no matter how big or small, to do everything. I like how the groups in the article above knew their strengths and didn't try to grasp beyond their reach. My church and your church need to identify one thing we can excel at and direct our resources there. Is it a food bank? Is it pastoral counseling? Is it manpower to sift through rubble to look for survivors?

  • Have a disaster-plan.
What if an earthquake strikes Sunday morning, do your brothers and sisters know where to go and what to do? If there is a disaster during the middle of the week, does your church leadership know how to reach everyone and is there a centralized meeting location to meet for immediate help? Who is the point-person(s) to contact and coordinate relief?

There are several pieces to this:
  1. Being linked up with the local Red Cross to let them know your church is available for evacuations and registering with the local VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, mentioned in the CT article above) so that they know you can help and what your resources are on the relief side
  2. Having a current contact list with emergency contacts (out of the area in the case of local disaster) of church members, having specified rendezvous points (because phone lines may be down or jammed with high volume) and having a specific communication plan (who contacts who and how to manage accountability) when it comes to checking on the welfare of the congregation
  3. And having supplies and resources in case of emergency- disaster kits including food and water, medical supplies, and blankets/bedding for those who are hit hardest in your fellowship. Plus it is important to have funds in reserve so that supplies, hotels short-term, or just benevolent hand-outs for those who may have lost homes. (So many churches today operate on a razor thin budget that this may seem impossible, but what would your church do if one or many of its members found themselves homeless due to natural disaster?)
These are just a few tips and are by no means exhaustive. A good article for reference is this article from Leadership Journal.


Yesterday the freeway through town was closed due to a massive sandstorm caused by winds gusting to 60 miles per hour. The winds in Oklahoma reached 200. My house shook. Cars struggled to stay on the road. Yet what we experienced was nothing compared to living in tornado alley. However, we live right on the San Andreas Fault. I joke that when the "big one" hits, we'll have ocean-front property. Yet personally I don't have a 50 gallon drum full of purified water. I don't have gasoline or a generator. I don't have a year's worth of non-perishable food in my pantry. If/when a major earthquake shakes our community, will I be prepared?

And if I'm not prepared how can I expect my church to be?

You have been a refuge for the poor,
a refuge for the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the storm
and a shade from the heat.
(Isaiah 25:4)

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