Helping in Community Crisis

JON PAUL, Pastor, Free Christian church, Andover, MA

Shootings, tornadoes, terrorism- we can’t predict when and where a major crisis will occur.  On September 13, massive over-pressurization of the natural gas distribution system let to a series of explosions across our community, setting 80 separate fires, injuring more than 20, and killing one.  The disaster left 8,000 business and residential customers without heat, hot water or gas stoves (including our church and parsonage) with cold weather setting in.  The restoration effort to date has exceeded one billion dollars.

It’s hard to plan for the unexpected but there are a few things we’ve learned through this that may be helpful as other churches consider how they might respond to an emergency.

  1. To love your neighbor, you have to know your neighbor. Know your community leaders as part of your everyday life. Develop relationships with police, fire, town social worker, senior center director.  Know the ministries and social service leaders who care for the most vulnerable in your community.  Serve with them in non-crisis times.  Have their contact info so you know who to call to offer support in crisis and so they know who to call when they need emergency help.  
  2. Listen to them!  Giving them things they don’t need (e.g. used clothes and toys) in the midst of crisis only creates work for them and it doesn’t help.   Sometimes a church needs to wait until the crisis responders tell us what they need, when and how they need it.  Volunteers are eager to help in the immediate crisis but nonprofits may not be ready to receive that help or have determined exactly what they need.  Eager but impatient volunteers can create more stress for the non-profits/helpers.
  3. Form a Church Emergency Response Team to be a first point of contact to get volunteers mobilized.  Know who in your congregation may have a flexible work schedule and is available during normal business hours when volunteers are most needed but often least available.  Include a “delivery team” including your people with pickup trucks and larger vehicles to be on call to transport and deliver supplies. Know what languages people in your church speak.  We were asked for Chinese and Russian translators to help communicate with homebound seniors who struggle with English.  Have ready the contact information for the Salvation Army Disaster Recovery coordinator for your state.
  4. Offer cash, not tuna sandwiches.  Establish an emergency fund to have cash available to help immediately.  Cash gives organizations options and flexibility in responding to immediate needs. Non-profits typically have established networks to get what they need (e.g. large amounts of food or medical supplies).  People showed up to one of our ministry partners with plates of tuna sandwiches to an emergency shelter that didn’t have refrigeration.  What they really needed was unrestricted financial donations.
  5. Follow up with police and first responders after the crisis is past to see how they are doing.
  6. Be ready to help people with inevitable forms and paperwork following a crisis.  Listen to their stories and struggles.  Be there for the long haul of the recovery.
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