How can our church minister most effectively to victims of disaster and trauma? I'm the pastor of a small congregation in a mid-size town. Over the past month our community has been devastated by a terrible flood. Many families in this area have endured the loss of their homes, interruption of work and school, loss of income, physical deprivation, and overwhelming anxiety about the future. What can we do as the Body of Christ to address some of these needs?
First, we want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you, your family, and your congregation as you begin picking your way through the aftermath of this heart-wrenching experience.
In answer to your question, we'd suggest that you can take an important first step in the right direction by making sure that your expectations are realistic. Bear in mind that a disaster is a disaster. It's one thing to deal with the normal strains and stresses of life. By way of contrast, the very meaning of the word trauma can be summed up as "too much too quick." It's going to take time, determination, and perseverance to get past the pain and devastation that seem so paralyzing and all-encompassing at the present moment.
You're to be commended on your desire to reach out to others in the midst of this difficult situation. Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) tells the story of a man who cared enough to minister to a victim of a sudden and traumatic attack. The parable provides us with a clear example of what it means to help those who are suffering in the aftermath of a physical disaster. Among other things, the Samaritan models the following principles:
Effective ministry involves a willingness and an ability to enter into the feelings and experiences of other people. It's important to realize that there is no quick and easy way to reach out to victims of natural disasters and other tragedies. Events of this nature generally push people beyond the limits of anything they've ever had to endure before. Our first responsibility is simply to be with them and listen to them in their pain and confusion.
- Selflessness and Flexibility
In order to help the bleeding man by the roadside the Samaritan had to interrupt his journey. Compassion compelled him to put his own plans on the back burner. We can't follow his example unless we're willing to make the same kind of sacrifice. Lend a hand when it is needed, not just when it is convenient.
- Emphasis on Practical Needs
Resist the temptation to over-spiritualize. "If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food," writes James, "and one of you says to them, 'Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,' but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?" (James 2:15, 16). When people are suffering, Christian workers sometimes jump too quickly into a message about eternal hope and salvation in Christ. Our first priority in a situation like this is to meet concrete needs. If you and your church aren't in a position to do this, then get behind the efforts of relief organizations who are better trained and equipped to help.
- Personal Ownership
The Samaritan assumed responsibility for the expense of the injured man's care (Luke 10:35). In effect, he said, "This is my problem, not somebody else's." You can do the same by supporting the relief effort with your time, your money, and your material resources. Churches can also help by offering counseling and small group support programs. Many victims need an opportunity to "de-brief" about their losses and traumatic experiences.
Focus on the Family's outreach to pastors and others involved in professional ministry is available to offer guidance and encouragement to church leaders who want to get involved in the effort to help victims of natural disasters. You can visit our Church Resources webpage or email email@example.com. And our Pastoral Care Line, a support and crisis hotline for pastors and their families, features a professional staff of pastor-to-pastor ministers who can offer an understanding ear, a word of advice, or a heartfelt prayer. Our toll free number is (877) 233-4455, and we're able to take calls Monday through Friday between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. Mountain Time.
One last thought. It isn't easy reaching out to people who are in the midst of intense sufferings. If you're going to become involved in this kind of ministry, it's important to monitor your own physical, emotional, and spiritual condition very closely. If you allow yourself to become depleted, you won't have anything to give to those who need your help. When the burden seems too heavy to bear, remember the incredible promise God has given us in His Word:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35, 38-39).
Parenting in the Midst of Tragedy