Official calls for church-state partnership in disaster relief

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California unit hosts MDS All-Unit meeting featuring speaker David Myers

by Kathy Heinrichs Wiest

“In disasters, the church and the state need to work closely together,” said David Myers, director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the Department of Homeland Security in his address to Mennonite Disaster Service’s (MDS) Annual All-Unit Meeting.

“That statement should make the hair on the back of your neck stand up,” he added.

Myers, who serves as a senior advisor to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Craig Fugate, spoke at MDS’s February 8 gathering in Bakersfield, Calif. The meeting brought together some 250 MDS leaders and volunteers from throughout the United States and Canada.

In his formal remarks and in an interview, Myers reflected on the value as well as the hazards of church and government working together.

An ordained Mennonite minister, Myers is well aware of the tension that a church-government partnership evokes. He cited the story of the Swiss Anabaptists’ defiance of the state church control in 1525 as the “artesian well” that eventually grew into “the great and beautiful river that separates the church and the state in this country.”

His own role as a Mennonite working in government makes for regular encounters with the tension in church-state relations. “There hasn’t been a day in almost five years that I haven’t at least in some way had to negotiate the separation of church and state. That’s hard for a Mennonite to do,” he said.

But, he contended, MDS must navigate that tension because the needs of communities in times of disaster require the complementary resources the partnership provides. While government agencies bring financial resources, re-building and fostering resilience in communities requires the human presence that voluntary organizations like MDS bring.

“Humans need to feel connected, attached to others, especially when your world has been upended,” he pointed out.

Myers pointed to the government’s response to the 2009 floods in Alaska where FEMA purchased building materials in bulk for eligible survivors and helped fund travel expenses for expert volunteer labor from MDS and other Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOADs). “FEMA could have brought contractors in to do [the rebuilding] but they would not have built the relationships. And it saved the government money!”

VOADs are a key component in FEMA’s recently established doctrine of “Whole Community,” said Myers. “Whole Community” involves many partners, from businesses and public institutions to faith communities and non-profit organizations. All are invited to the table as communities prepare for, respond to and rebuild after a disaster.

According to Myers, MDS’s long-term commitment to the communities where they serve makes them an especially effective partner in the rebuilding phase.

“MDS’s style is to come in and stay put. When the house is finished it’s not just the house, but it’s lives that have been touched,” said Myers. “That’s what the government wants to happen—to have communities put back together to a new normal—and it’s something that government cannot do and should not even try to do.

“A shovel, a hammer, a saw, as important as they are to repair the physical, without the heart you infuse in your work because of your faith, there would be no true healing, no true resilience,” he told the MDS audience.

But Myers also offered some cautionary words: “There may be no issue that brings the government and faith-based groups into more intense strategically planned and necessary relationship than do disasters. And it is for this very reason that great care must be taken by the government and faith-based groups like MDS to be very intentional and careful about those relationships.”

Myers said, “Both (government and VOADs) can say ‘we need you,’ but they can say in equal measure ‘you are not the boss of me.’”

President George W. Bush established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2001. In 2009 President Barak Obama appointed Myers director of the office’s center embedded in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Myers has been impressed with the freedom he and the center have been given in relating to faith-based groups. He credits his bosses, FEMA director Craig Fugate and Melissa Rogers, director of White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, for allowing that freedom to grow over the years as they have seen the results of the center’s efforts.

Myers’ role with FEMA has given him a unique view into how the agency works with partners like MDS. FEMA director Craig Fugate has a high appreciation and respect for VOADs as partners, said Myers. “I have been amazed at the relationship between FEMA and the faith-based VOAD groups. The fact that they can work so close together without getting messed up in the (First Amendment) establishment clause is remarkable.”

The MDS California Unit Board hosted the All-Unit Meeting at the Double Tree Inn in Bakersfield. Among the local Mennonite Brethren people involved on the planning committee were Lee and Donna Thomas, Judy Lopez, Phil Stangland and David Jost of Laurelglen Bible Church and Roger Riley of Shafter MB Church.

Photos by Steve Wiest

Photo 1: David L. Meyers addressed the Mennonite Disaster Service All-Unit Meeting February 8 in Bakersfield, Calif.

Photo 2: The California Unit Board hosted the MDS All-Unit Meeting in early February. Volunteers Roger Riley, Shafter MB Church, Lee Thomas and Bob and Jana Tingle from Laurelglen Bible Church of Bakersfield, stand at the registration table.

Photo 3: Long-time MDS volunteer Bill Mast, who attends Memorial Road MB Church in Edmond, Calif., has served with MDS long enough that his MDS cap sports an outdated logo. Kevin King, MDS binational director, corrected that situation during the All-Units Meeting when he presented Mast with a hat bearing the current logo.

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