How a disaster expert found his calling the hard way.
When Dr. Jamie Aten moved to southern Mississippi just days before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, he had no idea what was ahead. In the months and years that followed, he witnessed firsthand the significant impact the church and faith-based groups had in the relief and recovery process—as well as the ways they could improve—and this inspired a new focus for his academic research. As an academic psychologist, he began developing a body of research on faith, trauma, and resilience in the context of disasters that could help the church create evidence-based best practices to better prepare and care in a disaster-filled world. This became the mission of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute, the country’s first faith-based academic disaster research center, which he founded in 2012.
Then disaster struck again—this time in the form of a Stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis at age 35. Faced with his own “personal disaster,” Dr. Aten ultimately came to find new, unexpected meaning in both his research and his personal faith, and in the connection between the two.
His new book, A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina & Cancer Taught Me About Faith & Resilience (out today from Templeton Press), documents this journey, weaving together insights earned through each of these areas of his life into a portrait of the power of the human spirit to endure trauma with courage while pointing to the ultimate, redeeming hope we have in Christ. This book encourages readers to push past empty promises or inspirational clichés and toward counterintuitive, hard-won insights that help sustain and find meaning in the midst of suffering. A Walking Disaster will be an encouragement to anyone walking through their own disaster as well as anyone walking alongside suffering.
Dr. Aten is now in remission and is over four years cancer-free. The lessons he learned through his personal experience have reinforced those in his work with churches responding to disasters in their own communities, and vice versa. He continues this work with the Humanitarian Disaster Institute, which recently launched the MA in Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership program at Wheaton College Graduate School. In addition to ongoing research projects related to faith and disasters, he is also part of a research grant that seeks to understand how survivors draw upon religious resources to construct meaning in coping with suffering.
Church Law & Tax first interviewed Aten about his work with trauma relief in 2013. He then began his role as a regular columnist for ChurchLawAndTax.com in 2016, with a piece titled “How to Start a Disaster Ministry.” His latest, on “What Your Church Needs to Know About Disaster Sheltering,” is available here.