A priest friend, Dan Layden, serves as a disaster response coordinator in his city. When disaster strikes nearby or far away, he coordinates the response of the faith community.
When I learned that he did this work, I asked how he channels the good intentions of faithful folks who want to help in an emergency. I mentioned stories we often hear in times of disaster of donations that become a burden rather than a blessing, or volunteers who aren’t as helpful as they hope to be.
Dan gave a simple answer that has stayed with me. Pray. Stay. And, if you can, Pay.
Pray – Do not discount the gift of prayer, he said. Prayer is our first way to help. Pray for victims. Pray for first responders. Pray about how best to respond. Prayer helps us be guided by compassion rather than reactive anxiety. So pray!
Stay – In the initial days after a tragedy, he said it is best to stay out of the way unless you are part of a coordinated emergency response team. When a crisis response plan is in place and volunteers are requested, then it is helpful to show up and serve as they direct, but not until then. If you are not asked to be there, stay home until volunteers are requested.
Pay – Most of us have an abundance of clothes, furniture, and household goods we would readily give to someone in need. This impulse to share comes from a holy place. However, Dan said, donations of items quickly overwhelm both survivors and volunteers. If a specific item is requested, yes, donate it. People do need clothes and bedding and diapers initially. However, the thing that is most helpful to survivors of a tragedy is cash or gift cards or financial help to relocate or rebuild. So, if you can, pay, by giving to churches or agencies in the community who are ready to help survivors long term.
I remembered Dan’s advice today. Deadly tornadoes hit last week in Alabama and Georgia near where I live. I had been at an event in my city early this morning and mentioned I was planning to go to one of the volunteer centers in Alabama this afternoon. My church is providing meals for volunteers one day in a few weeks, and I wanted to get a sense of what was needed. The organizer of the event generously loaded my car with bottles of water to take to folks in Alabama. Before driving out, however, I called the volunteer center to see if they needed water or volunteers today. The volunteer coordinator said they were overwhelmed with both at the moment and struggling to find space for all the donations they had received. She thanked me for calling and said to check in later this week if I wanted to volunteer.
So, instead, I drove to Talbotton, Georgia which had been hit by the same storm. Talbotton, fortunately, suffered no fatalities, though over 40 homes were damaged or destroyed. They have not been in the news quite as much. I saw on Facebook that they needed volunteers. When I arrived, road signs told me where to check in. A supervisor gave me an assignment. I worked for several hours with volunteer teams who knew exactly what needed to be done. I left the water at a community drop off site and saw several families at the site getting assistance they needed. I was amazed by how organized the response was and glad people were being cared for.
The impulse to care comes from a good and holy place. It is like water – a refreshing gift from God. But this impulse is most helpful when it is channeled. When we submit our desire to care to the guidance of people who are trained to respond, we become part of a stream that gives life rather than an overwhelming flood.