When people think of disasters like hurricanes, they often recount the physical damages caused. However, disasters also cause significant spiritual, psychological, and emotional distress.
If you are a church leader from one of the affected communities you will likely be called upon to help respond to the needs left behind by this massive storm.
Walking alongside those who are suffering is part and parcel of every church leader’s calling. But when major disasters like Hurricane Harvey strike, even some of the most seasoned church leaders aren’t sure how to provide effective spiritual and emotional care.
Here are some tried-and-true ways to help survivors.
What Not to Say
Disasters can shake our most sacred beliefs and lead to questions such as, “Where was God in all of this?” It’s difficult to find the “right” words when reaching out and caring for others around you. Disasters can leave us feeling helpless, cause us to “freeze” up, or say things we wouldn’t normally say. Too often Christians offer “bumper sticker theology”—short phrases that sounds good but lack depth, like “God only tests the strong.” As a result, we often fall into the trap of relying on platitudes that aren’t helpful and can even be harmful for someone going through a trauma. If you really want to help, avoid words that might make wounds deeper. Instead, offer to journey with those seeking answers.
Respond to Basic Needs
One of the most effective acts involves helping survivors attend to their pressing basic needs. By caring for their practical needs, you are caring for psychological and spiritual needs, too. Throughout the Scriptures, we see numerous examples of times when Christ and his disciples attended to both spiritual and practical needs, such as offering hope and food in tandem. Remember the miracle of the loaves and fishes in Matthew 14? Basic needs include safety, comfort, and belonging. This may mean helping someone find a place to stay where he feels safe or getting someone something to eat when she is hungry. It may not feel as though you are doing much, but you are helping more than you realize. Focus on the tangible and immediate to get through the crisis.
As people of faith, we are called to pray for others, especially for those in need. In times of disasters, we shouldn’t see prayer as an afterthought, but rather as one of the most powerful things we can do to help. Prayer can be a strong source of aid. There is example after example throughout the Scriptures of the power of prayer, and we know we should pray with the confidence that our prayers will be heard. You might ask God for help and healing on behalf of those you are helping. If you aren't sure how to pray, you might try something like the Serenity Prayer. Know that it's also okay to pray silently to God or to pray with the person you are helping. This, too, can be a powerful way to connect. Just remember to not force prayer onto others.
Give the Gift of Connection
Another powerful way you can help after a disaster is to embody the ministry of presence. Practicing the ministry of presence means being available to those who are hurting and suffering. It means being there for others physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Simply put, it means being there for others when they need you most: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (1 Thess. 5:11). Picking up the pieces of one’s life after a disaster can feel lonely; disaster survivors often feel unsafe and forgotten. Don’t just try to express connection through your words. Instead, foster connection through your actions. Listen with acceptance and empathy. To truly empathize, we must help from a place of humility and try to meet people where they are, in their current condition and place in life. Those who are humble are interested in learning from survivors and are focused on the needs of those affected by the disaster. Humility enables us to demonstrate a more complex form of empathy, come alongside those who are hurting, and journey with them through the pain. Remind those you are helping that they are not alone.