Preparing for the worst

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Does your congregation have a disaster response plan?

By Connie Faber

“It never happens here until it happens here,” says Jeff Blackburn of Greensburg, Kan., about his attitude before the May 4, 2007 tornado that destroyed 95 percent of Greensburg’s homes, including all nine of the community’s churches, and killed 11 people. When the storm was over and Blackburn and his family emerged from their basement, “there was no house left,” he says. “The stairs went up into the air.” 

While Blackburn’s immediate concern was for his family, his thoughts quickly turned to his congregation; Blackburn is pastor of Greensburg Mennonite Church. And that’s when he realized that his church didn’t have a disaster plan. The lessons that Blackburn learned the hard way thanks to the tornado have him preaching the value of having a congregational disaster response plan, including ways to check on every member following a disaster and what to do if a disaster strikes during a service.

So let me ask the question: Does your congregation have a disaster response plan? “If you can imagine (a disaster), it can happen,” says Kevin King, Mennonite Disaster Service executive director.

Thanks to the appearance in March of H1N1, then called swine flu, one emergency that is becoming easier to imagine is a flu pandemic. Today H1N1 dominates the news and is prompting U.S. colleges and universities, including Tabor College, to work out pandemic flu plans, as this highly contagious flue targets children and younger adults.

Preparing for a pandemic is new territory for many of us. In a recent news release, Mennonite Publishing Network quotes Tim Foggin, a Canadian public health physician from Willingdon (BC) MB Church, who says that the church will play an important role should a pandemic occur. The ill will likely be cared for at home by family and friends—by each other as fellow believers—since hospitals will be stretched thin and family doctors will be swamped.

Foggin encourages churches to answer questions like: What will you do if a third of the congregants are ill? What will you do if all the pastors get sick? How can you best prepare to maintain what you do well?

While caring for its members is one priority, the church is often among the first groups a community looks to for help in an emergency. As followers of Christ, our response to natural disasters should be rooted in heavy hearts that grieve with those who have lost so much and experienced such pain. And tears should lead to deeds. “God wants us to release our grip on our money, our resources and our selfishness,” writes pastor and author Erwin W. Lutzer in Where Was God? “When disasters come, we should be the first to respond with sacrifice and generosity.”

Responding to a flu pandemic raises unique questions about personal safety. When we fear for our health, we naturally want to protect ourselves. When confronted by a virulent flu, will Christians retreat in fear, or will we respond with healing and hope? Pam Driedger, author of Beyond Our Fears, a new resource published by Mennonite Publishing Network, says government and municipalities are creating disaster response plans. “Shouldn’t we, as ordinary people of faith, be spiritually prepared?” she asks. “Why not know before the crisis what kinds of actions and attitudes are most consistent with our faith?”

Christians should also be ready to help other believers—and doubters—cope with what Lutzer calls the “religious aftershocks” that follow a natural disaster, challenging the faith of those who believe in God and reinforcing the cynicism of skeptics. How do we confidently trust God even when natural disasters bring seemingly unnecessary suffering? Can we trust a God who allows a disaster he could have kept from happening?

Whether it’s an H1N1 outbreak at the local university or a neighborhood devastated by a flood, we are best equipped to offer material, spiritual and emotional care when we’ve prepared ourselves in advance of the crisis. Preparation is practical and hands-on: offering basic first aid training, including CPR, at your church, connecting with your city’s emergency management office or making sure church leaders are aware of congregants with specific medical needs. It also means anticipating that we will need to curb the sometimes natural desire to offer answers when the best thing to do is to sit with neighbors and friends, sharing the pain that comes with loss. It’s preparing to do and to be.

Mennonite Church Canada has a pandemic Web site that offers a variety of resources.

Thank You Times 20

This month we say thank you to Donna Sullivan, the U.S. Conference administrative secretary and bookkeeper who is celebrating her 20th year as an employee of the denomination. She is a faithful and cheerful servant as she carries out her many and varied responsibilities.

In addition to her work as bookkeeper and secretary, Donna’s “to do” list includes two Christian Leader tasks that I would say are critical to the smooth operation of our magazine. She is our business manager, which puts her in frequent contact with advertisers, and the CL circulation secretary, which puts her in touch with you, our readers, and the church offices that regularly update our mailing list. Donna’s years of experience make her a wonderful and invaluable resource to the magazine as well as to our denomination.— CF

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