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. Read more