Religious response to disasters steeped in U.S. history

BY LARRY STURGILL | January 1, 1999


Disasters have always been a part of humankind's history. Natural disasters are recorded in The Bible, included in numerous historical texts and are reported by news media today.

It has only been in the last 20 years, with the advent of satellite communication, that news of disasters from around the world can be known moments after they have occurred. As a result, disaster Response Organizations are able to respond quickly, often within hours, even to remote regions. Before satellites, it often took days, weeks, or months, before help arrived.

In the United States, disaster relief has long been associated with the faith organizations. Long before there organized agencies to help disaster victims, members of local churches were there to provide food, shelter and financial assistance to those in need.

Faith-based disaster relief goes back to the arrival of the first U.S. settlers. Historian Marvin Olasky, in his book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, notes that with the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620, "the model of early American compassion emphasized hospitality, particularly the opening of homes to those suffering in destitution because of disaster." These disastrous calamities were usually the result of fire, or a serious, crippling injury.

American history is replete with records of churches responding to the needs of those whose lives were disrupted by disasters. This was especially true during the era of western expansion when the wilderness presented dangers never before experienced. However, because of the strong competition to gain converts during this period of rapid population growth, churches usually provided aid by themselves in the hope of winning more followers.

One of the first recorded interfaith efforts occurred in the wake of an earthquake that struck New Madrid, Missouri in 1811. The massive earthquake, and numerous strong after shocks, caused damage over most of the central Mississippi Valley region. Missions of the Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and other denominations, worked together to aid earthquake victims in this sparsely populated area.

Peter Cartwright, a well-known Methodist missionary, who helped aid survivors in the region, professed that the earthquake brought the leaders of the various denominations closer together, and had measurable effect on the response to appeals from the religious community. Cartwright also wryly noted that another result of the great earthquake was a large increase in church membership throughout the region in 1812.

One hundred and eighty-six years later, co-operation between various faith communities is commonplace. When responding to disasters, relief organizations within the religious community have few qualms about working together for the common good, and in fact, openly seek such cooperation. A prime example of such a cooperative effort was the church community's response to the massive flooding in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota in April 1997.

When the Red River rose above flood level and burst through the dikes protecting the towns and cities along its banks, thousands of people were forced to flee their homes, and hundreds of businesses were forced to close down. When disaster relief teams from the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Response Agency (FEMA) moved into the region to provide aid to those displaced by the flood, they found members of local churches already hard at work providing food, clothing and temporary shelter.

Jane Lindstrom, a 72 year old widow, was forced to leave her first floor apartment in downtown Grand Forks. The water rose so fast that she had no time to gather up any of her personal belongings when rescue personnel evacuated her apartment building.

"I lost everything," she laments. "Furniture, clothing, pictures, and a lifetime of mementos. Its all gone."

Members of a local Federated Church came to her aid. They arranged shelter for her, brought her hot meals and fresh clothing, and spent time locating family members to let them know she was okay. Two days later, a church member drove her to the home of her daughter, who lived in Rochester, Minnesota, more than 400 miles away. Before she left, a woman from the church gave her a beautiful hand-made quilt.

"This woman told me it was to remind me of my new beginning," says Lindstrom. "That was very nice."

As the flooding threatened accross North Dakota, the Rev. Jack Seville, conference minister for the North Plains Conference of the United Church of Christ, called together a task force to determine what the combined church, state, and federal relief forces could do to best meet both the immediate and the long-term needs of the flood victims.

An emergency meeting brought together representatives from the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the Seventh-Day Adventists, both Southern and American Baptist Churches, the Presbyterian Church, and the Catholic Church. Also present were representatives from FEMA, the American Red Cross, the North Dakota Farmers Union, the Mental Health Association, the North Dakota Housing Authority, the North Dakota State Disaster Relief Fund, and Nancy Schafer, wife of North Dakota governor, Ed Schafer.

>From that meeting came an organization known as the North Dakota Unmet Needs Task Force. The task force has met in-person and through satellite teleconferences nearly every month since. The coordinating group has secured long-term support from a variety of faith-based organizations.

"This is a significant effort to help people who have run through all other available resources," says Rev. Seville. "There are good processes in place for long-term help."

In the Grand Forks area, an interfaith organization called Valley Interfaith Coalition Toward Recovery (VICTORY), was formed with representatives of more than 20 area churches and the assistance of a number of national faith-based disaster Response Organizations.

Working with R.A.F.T., (Resource Agency Flood Team), VICTORY provides assistance on both sides of the Red River and has included rural outreach, replacement of furniture, appliances, etc.. R.A.F.T. includes Catholic Family Services, Lutheran Disaster Response, the Salvation Army, and United Methodist Committee Relief.

Meanwhile, Jane Lindstrom is back in Grand Forks. She was saddened to hear that her old apartment building had been demolished.

"I lived there for 15 years," she says sadly. "A lot of friends, a lot of memories..........". Her voice trails off.

She says she enjoyed the time she lived with her daughter and her family, but she wanted to come "home." She's living in a new apartment, with new furniture, and a balcony that overlooks a small park.

"I'm not close to the river now," she says. "They told me it's about three miles away. But this time, I picked an apartment on the second floor ..... just in case."

She says she keeps the church quilt draped over her new couch.

"It's a reminder," she says. "I wish I could remember the name of the woman who gave it to me, but so many people helped me. I'll never forget what they did for me."


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