Remember teachings of Mr. Rogers and the Good Samaritan in Harvey relief efforts
While churches can’t care for all global disaster victims on their own, they can and do come in after rescue efforts to aid communities.
Earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes aren’t going away any time soon, but neither are those who help in the midst of them.
As the remnants of Hurricane Harvey continue to pound Houston and far beyond, we are reminded of the words of Fred (Mr.) Rogers, when he explained how he would comfort children watching disasters unfold on television.
His answer, “Look for the helpers.”
Disasters come unpredictably, as did Harvey. But, the response to such disasters follows a distinct pattern, and that pattern consistently involves the disproportionate presence of people of faith.
Churches don’t do everything, but they come in after the immediate needs of rescue, starting to get involved during emergency relief, but are mostly mobilized during recovery.
Government is essential in the rescue stage — they have the equipment and means to move that equipment. The Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are hard at work right now. Yet, their work alone is insufficient to rebuild the homes and lives of people impacted by natural disasters each year. In fact, over the past decades, we have seen a growing acknowledgement (from government, no less) of the reliable role of faith-based organizations.
According to Partnerships for the Common Good, a toolkit produced by the Obama White House, “nonprofit organizations, including faith-based and community organizations, play a vital role in both preparing for disaster, and in ensuring an inclusive and participatory community-wide recovery from a disaster.” Even further, “these organizations directly supplement and fill gaps where government authority and resources cannot be applied.”
While churches alone certainly can’t command the forces necessary to care for all global disaster relief victims on their own, they can and do come in after the rescue efforts and are often mobilized during recovery to aid victims and their families.
Since there is no central reporting system, it is difficult to determine actual numbers. However, some denominations have rough numbers. For example, Kevin Ezell, who leads the agency charged with Southern Baptist disaster relief, indicates that the denomination channeled at least $40,000,000 into Katrina relief — not including the value of millions of volunteer hours. He sees similar patterns emerging for Harvey.
Academic research also points to the impact. For example, in one study, “Faith-Based Organizations and Sustainable Sheltering Operations in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina,” about half of the shelters in the first few weeks were operated by faith based organizations — perhaps more than many realize.
Many wonder, why is it that Christians feel the need to get down into the dirty trenches of disaster relief work? It is no secret that simply averting our eyes from the difficulties of our distant neighbors is certainly much simpler than trying to enter into their pain and suffering. After all — one might ask — are these people living in Haiti, Louisiana and the East Coast even our neighbors? Why would we owe them our care and assistance?
Jesus himself was confronted with a similar question in Luke 10 and He answered, as He most frequently did, with a parable: the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Many believers and non-believers alike know something of the story. As the parable goes, there was a man — a Jewish man at that — who had been attacked by robbers and thus lay beaten and bloody on the side of the road. Two people — leaders, no less— saw the man and walked past him deciding that their time and resources were much too valuable to be sacrificed for the sake of this stranger. Thankfully, though, the ‘Good Samaritan’ enters the scene.
He, although from a completely different ethnic and religious group from the injured man, immediately came to his rescue. The Good Samaritan, as the Bible tells, saw the man through eyes of empathy. He went to him, bandaged his wounds and afterwards paid to take him to an inn where he cared for him further.
Many see this story as a short, sweet tale of a generally ‘good person’ who decided to help someone he saw in need. It was, after all, the right thing to do. But make no mistake, the parable of the Good Samaritan is not just a pithy story of a nice guy helping another nice guy in need. Instead, it is a powerful example of a compassionate response to disaster, in this case a robbery and beating.
The Good Samaritan didn’t pause to question whether or not this man was worth his time. He didn’t ask himself whether he had anything to gain or whether or not he would be reimbursed from his investment. Instead he did what Christians witnessing any natural disaster should do: give and give with a generous heart.
That is, after all, what Christian groups (just looking at the S entries in the disaster-relief directory) like the Salvation Army, Samaritan’s Purse, and the Southern Baptist Convention, have done for decades. Volunteers associated with these groups (as well as local churches) have proved themselves vital to disaster relief efforts as they work to provide food, water and other supplies to people in need.
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They do these things not out of a sense of guilt or a desire to impress but instead a longing to do unto others as, they believe, their God has done unto them. They see generous giving as a way to express their faith and live out Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor above self.
The fact is, religious people get a lot of criticism these days and get mentioned when they are not living up to their beliefs. But, in moments like these, they are at their best. So, let’s take the advice of Mr. Rogers and look at the helpers.
They are Good Samaritans, often motivated by the One who told that parable in the first place. We can be thankful for them this week, as we should be when they follow the teachings of the one who gave Christians their name.
Ed Stetzer is the executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and a senior fellow at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute, both at Wheaton College (IL).
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