Post Author: Danielle Cox
The congregation I serve is no stranger to hurricanes. In 2008, the roof on its education wing collapsed during Hurricane Ike. In the process of making repairs, our denomination built a mission station with camp-style bunk beds and shower facilities. For several years it housed volunteers for the recovery efforts, but then it lay dormant. We were called into action again as long-term Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts began.
Whenever natural disasters occur in the United States, people all over the country mobilize to help. Waters had not even receded when I was inundated with requests from church groups: wanting to schedule a mission trip as soon as possible, asking to be connected with families from my congregation in need, and offering donations of various kinds.
In the wake of a disaster, it’s possible to get so overwhelmed by the offers to help that a pastor might not know where to begin. Unfortunately, we must sometimes begin by saying No: No, please don’t come next week or even next month… there will be plenty of recovery work to do in six months, a year, and beyond. No, we don’t need any blankets, clothes, or toiletries – gift cards or donations to your favorite disaster response organization will have the biggest impact. Our instincts at giving and doing often run contrary to the needs on the ground.
Occasionally, a volunteer’s expectations can become incompatible with doing recovery work, where flexibility is key. In one exchange I emailed with the mission committee of a church in another state. At first, it seemed that they wanted to adopt our church, which had sustained some damage that was ultimately not covered by our insurance. It turned out that the minister emailing me and the chair of their mission committee had a miscommunication, and what they really wanted to do was adopt a family.
I identified a lovely family in my congregation who needed help and asked permission to share their information with the church that had contacted me. After a few more email exchanges, both the pastor and the mission chair ghosted me, and I never heard from them again. It was apparent to me that our real needs didn’t meet with their expectations of what helping us would look like.
As Christians, we certainly struggle with our understanding of mission. As a pastor, I have wrestled with the Church’s shortcomings in mission, and I am aware of the other-izing that can happen when churches engage in mission. However, it was not until Hurricane Harvey that I experienced what it means to be on the receiving end of an unbalanced system. Often, when groups engage in mission, those with resources and privilege go to help in places where people may have less access to resources and have less privilege. This can create all sorts of problems.
The gospel itself stands in tension with privilege, and in recovery work this is not just a theological issue. There are some problematic practical implications for those being helped. My county’s long-term recovery group has a “do no harm” approach to the services that we provide each Harvey survivor. Unfortunately, the un-checked privilege of volunteer groups can do harm to the people who are most vulnerable.
Volunteer work is crucial to recovery. In fact, in the United States, disaster recovery depends upon it. My church’s mission station has become a hub of activity hosting volunteers from all over the country and from different denominations.
Most of our volunteers who come are amazing—hard workers with skills or a willingness to learn and a passion to serve rooted in their faith. Volunteers who sit with the homeowners, work alongside them, listen to their stories, and accompany them on their journeys of recovery have truly helped healing take place here. But we have had some groups who come with misunderstandings of mission. This ultimately shows through on the work sites as they are inflexible when the unexpected happens with the work schedule, they are picky with the type of work they do, and they want to see a finished product- something nearly impossible with flood recovery work.
Every church group who sets out to go on a disaster recovery mission trip has the potential to be one of those first groups I mentioned, but it is dependent on good pastoral and lay leadership. Leaders must work through decisions about when to come, who to bring, how to prepare, and why they do the work.
While a disaster is all over the news, everyone wants to come and help. However, as Rev. Caroline Hamilton-Arnold, Associate Director of Week of Compassion, says, “Send money now. Pray always. Mark your calendar for a year from now, when your volunteer presence will be needed even more!” One year after our disaster, I can attest to how true this is. When Hurricane Harvey hit, there were still families struggling to recover from Hurricane Ike (2008). We have barely scratched the surface on recovery efforts for Harvey and will continue to need volunteers for many years to come.
Another crucial component to good mission work is deciding who to bring. Youth groups are great, especially if they have leaders who believe in them! I have seen youth do great repair work this summer. Sometimes churches think mission trips are only for youth, but I believe that amazing things can happen when churches organize multi-generational groups for mission trips. Octogenarians working alongside teenagers: could there be any better portrait of God’s Church?
To prepare well for a mission trip, always be sure to bring a few skilled workers with you. Local organizations like my own denomination’s Disciples Volunteering have site leadership, but it is helpful if groups have leaders who can help teach skills to the other members of the group. It can even help expand the possibilities of work that one group can do in the limited time they have. As you plan, watch out for workshops at local building supply stores and take advantage of educational opportunities to prepare for disaster recovery work before you arrive. Expand the pool of skilled workers at your church!
Finally, to prepare well for a good mission trip, your group must work toward understanding why you do recovery and mission work. This is where pastors can have a positive influence. When our mission is not theologically grounded, a mission trip can evolve into Christian tourism. We must remember that we serve not for the pictures and Facebook likes, not to check another mission trip off our list, and not to make ourselves feel better. We serve because as Christians we are called to love God, neighbor, and self.
There are many scriptures that inspire and ground that call. Two of my favorites are Matthew 25:35-40 and Luke 10:25-37. In our struggles after Hurricane Harvey, however, I am reminded of the story of Ruth and Naomi. Naomi had experienced the death of her husband and her sons. In her pain, she felt abandoned by God. Naomi tried to push her daughters-in-law away, yet Ruth covenanted to remain with Naomi, serving as a reminder that Naomi was not alone, and that God had not abandoned her. I have realized over the last year that for many Hurricane Harvey survivors, the volunteers who come to our county, whether or not they realize it, bring hope. More importantly, these volunteers serve as a reminder that survivors are neither alone nor forgotten.
As we approach the first anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, we know that future hurricane seasons will bring new storms that will make Harvey, Irma, and Maria seem like distant memories. Meanwhile, so many from last year’s hurricane cycle are still struggling to piece together their lives, and they may feel forgotten. Showing up and continuing to remind people that they are not alone brings the same message that Ruth brought: that God continues to be present even in our brokenness. That is the mission of the Church at its core – Emmanuel, God-with-us.
The Rev. Danielle Cox is the Senior Minister at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Texas City, Texas, and holds a Master of Divinity from the University of Chicago Divinity School. During college Danielle interned with Disciples Volunteering at a mission station in Nashville, Tennessee, doing flood recovery work, an experience which has been invaluable as her own church has navigated serving as a mission station for hurricane recovery work.
Image by: Danielle Cox
Used with permission