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Disaster relief: opportunity for the church

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–June signals the beginning of another hurricane season, and residents near the Atlantic and Gulf coasts would do well to start preparing — especially if the words “Katrina,” “Ike” or “Gustav” strike a scary chord.

But Mickey Caison, a disaster relief leader at the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, says preparedness is not only for the hurricane season but is a planning process that families, churches and local Baptist associations should undertake in advance of any possible disaster — whether a tornado in the South, a flood in the Midwest, an ice storm in New England or even a swine flu pandemic.

“Families should be prepared in the event of any disaster that may isolate them for a period of time, knock off electricity or block roads,” said Caison, NAMB’s team leader for adult volunteer mobilization.

He recommended that families develop a disaster plan and compile a supply kit to cover a minimum of three days.

The family survival kit would include one gallon of water per person per day; canned and packaged food; “comfort” food such as cookies, hard candy, sweetened cereals, instant coffee and tea bags; a first-aid kit; equipment and tools, including eating utensils; a battery-operated radio and flashlight with extra batteries; personal hygiene items; clothing and bedding; and special items like eyeglasses, copies of important family documents, cash, etc.

“Southern Baptist churches also need to prepare for disasters,” Caison said.

Such preparations for churches could include creating a communications plan for linking the church with its members during a disaster and, in advance, building strong relationships with community resources such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and city and county emergency management personnel.

Also, churches can decide in developing a disaster plan if they want to be an SBC disaster relief operations center, a site for a feeding unit or a temporary living shelter for disaster relief volunteers.

“At the same time, their disaster preparedness plan will help them in ways to minister both to their church members and to the community. If they don’t have a plan, the church is just going to react to the situation,” Caison said.

“A lot of times in a disaster, we’ll call a church and ask if we can use their church to set up a feeding unit. But their response is, ‘We’ll have to call a deacons’ meeting or have a business meeting to decide.’ We in disaster relief don’t have time for that so we must go on to another church.”

Caison said unprepared churches without plans lose a golden opportunity to position themselves, their ministries and their facilities in the community.

“In having a strong relationship with community leaders in case of a disaster — before the disaster strikes — the SBC church will have a seat at the planning table,” he said. “Churches will be in on the planning, know what’s going to happen and know how you can be part of the response. Your church then becomes a viable part of the ministry of disaster relief following a disaster.

“But all these decisions and relationships need to be made beforehand,” Caison said. “Community disaster relief agencies like the Red Cross or Salvation Army won’t have time to come to you after the disaster happens. And they won’t have time for you to come to them.”

Caison said churches that plan ahead for disaster response can use such opportunities for outreach in the community. For example, a church can partner with the Red Cross, Salvation Army and local emergency management to offer a preparedness training event for families, including those who may not normally attend that church.

“The bottom line is that local churches are in a unique position to respond to individual needs in ways that no other organization or group can,” Caison said. “Churches can demonstrate the love of Christ as they meet the needs of disaster victims. Even spontaneous reaction to a disaster in the church’s community can be helpful if it’s coordinated with the efforts of other disaster relief agencies.”

Caison said NAMB’s disaster relief staff has developed comprehensive preparedness plans and checklists for families, churches and local associations to implement before disasters hit. The plans are available at www.namb.net/DR.

The NAMB disaster relief website also includes a section on “Pandemic Flu Preparedness,” which is timely because the World Health Organization officially has declared the H1N1 or swine flu virus a pandemic — the first pandemic of the 21st century and the first since 1968.

WHO raised its pandemic flu alert to Phase 6 on a six-point scale. To date, nearly 29,000 infections have been reported in 74 countries, including more than 140 deaths. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has reported a total of 13,217 cases of the H1N1 flu, resulting in 27 deaths so far across the United States and Puerto Rico.

Many of the same issues for disaster relief apply to a possible flu pandemic, Caison said.

“How do you minister to your members and the community when flu pandemics call for mandatory rules against congregating? How will we get food to people when they are quarantined at home?

“We’re still extremely concerned about a swine flu pandemic, although it’s fallen off the radar screen for most folks now,” Caison said. “But families and churches need to prepare for that as a potential disaster, too. The last time there was a major pandemic in 1918, it started in the winter, waned during the spring and summer, but came back with a vengeance in the fall. The reality is that next fall and winter, we have a high probability of significant flu.”

One church that is prepared for disasters, including a flu pandemic, is First Baptist Church in Cumming, Ga., which averages 1,000 people on Sundays.

“Since the swine flu outbreak, we’ve been emphasizing to our members that if we get into a pandemic situation, the most important thing our church needs to do is to stay healthy so we can serve our community,” pastor Bob Jolly said.

To hammer that message home, Jolly said First Baptist recently held its first “No Handshake Sunday” during which members were encouraged to forsake handshakes in favor of what he described as “the holy elbow bump.”

In the event of a flu pandemic, public gatherings would have to be cancelled, he said.

“We’ve told our people that sermons would be online and that our webpage would be active and dynamic to communicate things they need to know. Our webpage would also include links to government, CDC and NAMB disaster relief sites,” he said.

Jolly said the most important thing Southern Baptists can do to be prepared for disasters is to continue to give their tithes to their church so the church is financially healthy to take on disaster relief.

“As Southern Baptists and their churches continue to give to the Cooperative Program, Annie Armstrong and Lottie Moon [missions] offerings, that helps keep our disaster relief infrastructure in place so we can be more effective when an emergency comes,” Jolly said.
Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board.

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