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'E-motional' support

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | February 15, 2002

"I was sent thousands of notes of concern and prayer from people all over the world."

—Joann Hale

A virtual hug, a cyber prayer, a word about appropriate donations, even a run-on sentence that vents frustration. It all happens via e-mail -- and since Sept. 11 it happens even more.

A UCLA study found Sept. 11 has transformed the way we use e-mail. Its findings showed, in the wake of the terrorist attacks, more than 100 million Americans -- or about 57% of e-mail users -- received or sent messages of concern in the week following the attacks.

What's more, 39 percent sent messages offering emotional support or expressing concern about the recipients' welfare, and 38% received such messages. Eighteen percent wrote e-mails asking if the recipient was directly affected, and 16% asked about potential victims the recipient knew. Twenty-three percent of U.S. Internet users received e-mail messages of support or sympathy from other countries.

Plus, many people also used e-mail as a way to reconnect with someone they'd lost contact with.

Researchers found many of those cyber contacts wouldn't have been made by telephone -- even if the lines weren't jammed on Sept. 11.

In other words, e-mail is increasingly becoming a way to provide "e-motional" support and make caring connections between people.

The week after Sept. 11, Joann Hale, a Church World Service (CWS) disaster response facilitator, said she sent out e-mails giving updates on people she'd met in New York City and asked for prayers for their healing.

Hale, also connected with the United Church of Christ, has been helping to organize an interfaith response in New York City since hours after the terrorist attacks. She not only provided spiritual care over e-mail -- she received some, too.

"I was sent thousands of notes of concern and prayer from people all over the world," she said.

"In fact, many of us within CWS always ask for prayers for personal issues such as upcoming surgeries, births, deaths, and maybe a family member in the military."

The Rev. Michael Thomas, pastor at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in New York City, added, although he'd rather be involved with people on a more personal level, he doesn't think it's necessarily impersonal or superficial to offer care over e-mail. "God reaches out in all different venues."

But e-mail makes a better healing balm when the recipient knows the sender, many disaster responders acknowledged.

"I find personal spiritual or other supportive e-mail messages from people I know to be very meaningful," said Gord Friesen, a Mennonite Disaster Service chairperson for Canada. "But not as much the mass circulation of 'packaged' supportive messages I and my wife frequently receive as forwarded messages from friends and strangers."

And the longer it's been forwarded, the less personal it seems to become, he said. "One doesn't even know who initiated them."

Don Fisher, a Church World Service partner in Indonesia, agreed. "If the e-mail is from someone I know, it is important. However, e-mail from strangers is easily trashed. It can have less value than junk mail."

As a venue for spiritual care, e-mail can be problematic because a lot of times e-mails have to be brief, he added. "People often check their e-mail at work. They don't have time for lots of verbiage. They want the point quickly and concisely."

E-mail can also be a difficult outlet for spiritual care because the best spiritual help is listening, he said. "This may be done by telephone but the best listening is face to face. E-mails fail here."

Although he feels e-mail is limited when it comes to providing spiritual care, Fisher said people who have time to check lengthy e-mails at home might benefit from spiritual-minded e-mails. "We subscribe to Daily Manna from the International Bible Society. I generally don't have time to read it, but my wife, who does not work, enjoys the daily verses. Still, I feel that people like this who can really concentrate on e-mail are in the minority."

The best spiritual work Fisher has done over e-mail? Something short and quick: "We are praying for you."

If the spiritual care takes the form of information sharing rather than emotional support, it's almost unsurpassed.

Carolyn Tyler, director of North Carolina Interfaith Disaster Response, Inc. (NCIDR), said responders in her state traded information about how to handle Sept. 11 even though they were far away. Some of NCIDR's board members to New York City or Washington, DC to help with specific tasks but most others stayed put -- and they wanted to do something. "A lot of local folks in North Carolina swapped information about what different denominations were doing," she said. "For example, somebody would put out information about working with children after a disaster and we'd all receive it. E-mail supports our goals of providing information and advocacy."

Information is also part of Ben Curran's job as manager of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's material donations program.

As Sept. 11 unfolded and people across the country wanted to help, Curran and others helped get a message out: material goods -- booties for search dogs, truckloads of women's underwear, hundreds of used teddy bears -- weren't really needed.

Curran said he uses the telephone, face-to-face contact, and e-mail -- especially a listserv -- to get the word out about appropriate donations.

Through the listserv, Curran and other donations experts across the country have a constant "e-dialog" about caring for disaster survivors with material goods. "It's a very efficient and effective way of reaching a number of interested and influential people in the donations field."

Other responders -- especially those who work on a very local level -- flat-out don't use e-mail to care for disaster survivors. "I don't use it," said Melvin Grilley, United Church of Christ disaster coordinator in North Dakota. "I'd rather go and see people and work hands-on in a community."

Yet even Grilley sees a place for cyber care: "My wife has a considerable amount of medical problems and we signed up for prayer groups over e-mail."

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