Book Review : Disaster Ministry Handbook by David Boan and Jasmie Aten

Among most communities, it is the churches that people turn to as centers for assistance and response during times of disaster. Whenever tornados or floods destroy property and devastate an area, or when a community is shaken by shocking acts of violence knowing what to do in such a situation can be the ultimate difference between life and death, calm and chaos or courage and fear 1. Few churches take the time to plan in advance for such eventualities and are more often than not being caught off guard when the storms of disaster hit. Disaster Ministry by David Boan and Jasmie Aten is a practical guide for churches in disaster preparedness. The book is critically important to the church in preparing for the unthinkable and providing relief to victims of such a catastrophic event. Both authors are co-directors at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HID) 2 which bolsters the book’s credibility in providing a resource with information regarding planning for local congregations in a community. Stephen Bauman, the Chief Executive Officer and president of World Relief puts, while giving a commentary about the book underscored its importance by describing it as a handbook for the church and will help all those who follow Jesus to march to the front line that disaster creates, whether it is natural or man-made 3. The primary goal is to assist those most in need during periods of crisis. Below is an in-depth review of Disaster Ministry Handbook by David Boan and Jasmie Aten and its perspective on how best the Church can deal with disasters.

There are various critical roles that the church can play in disaster response and resilience. The handbook provides the reader with valuable lessons and answers especially to the question of what type of assistance local churches can provide, especially in regions that are regarded as high-risk. It is common knowledge that there are churches that have members living in disaster prone areas and there are also those who sincerely want to go the extra mile and provide help for these individuals3. It seems the sole aim of the authors is to prepare those individuals with servant hearts to these two perspectives and in doing so introduce them to the importance of disaster assistance. They suggest the reasons why churches should participate in such initiatives and propose ways in which the local church can assist the community specifically due to the trust that the community has in them and their structure. They are in essence, the first line of help for the community that they come from and should thus make is a point to increase their engagement level and participate wholly in this noble quest.

David Boan and Jasmie Aten’s opinions on the role of the church during periods of disasters

Disaster can come in various forms which are perhaps the reason why the authors had to break them down into four distinct categories: terrorist hazards, natural disasters, public health emergencies, technological and accidental hazards. Additionally, the authors go on to elaborate the various phases of disaster response after its initial identification4. In most cases, local churches are ill-prepared to implement a meticulously planned response to combat disasters that require urgent attention. The layout of the book is a buildup of crucial information designed to help local churches plan on how to best deal with it and how it can support its congregation and the community at large. If and when disaster strikes, the church first dedicates itself to the community in response to the matter at hand as seen in the case of the Salvation Army in the United States5. They often act as first responders whenever there is a crisis as they are aware that it is their Christian duty to assist those struck by tragedy.  Furthermore, this handbook is also designed to prepare the church leadership (the pastor being at the top) to make a local response whenever they are called upon to do so.  The first responders, for example, will me individuals in the health profession and mental health providers who also happen to be members of the church’s congregation 6. Such a group becomes the target audience for this book to assist them to formulate an orderly response policy.

The book also builds a solid case on why churches should be in direct involvement in efforts of disaster recovery and the provision of practical tools that can be put to use to create a fitting reaction plan. In responding to disasters, churches also need to learn how to integrate their response so that other partners, be it government or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), can lend a helping hand and lighten their load. The authors of this book also present the notion that the church’s involvement during periods of crisis also creates an opportunity for the local churches to interact and minister within the community that surrounds them5. They can serve these individuals with Christ’s love during the dark times and give them the hope that they need to soldier on. Moreover, the book advises local churches to try starting small and then joining with other partners as the main goal of their efforts is to create resilience to disaster in the local population. An observation brought up in the book is that disasters have been on a steady rise, but the resources that are made available to respond to these calamities have been decreasing. In a time where the frequency of the disasters has been increasing and government resources decreasing, a unique opportunity for the church presents itself where it is able to reach out to the people during their time of need.

Throughout the book, these two authors bring the audience to the realization that vulnerable individuals in the society often suffer disproportionately. An example that they provide is that of persons with disabilities as their likelihood of survival is two to four times lesser. The needs of those regarded as vulnerable in the society are unique whenever there is a disaster7. Those in this group include the young or very old, fragile individuals, the poor and those with few resources and the necessary connections to enable the, face these difficult experiences. It is important for the churches to understand fully how these disasters affect vulnerable people to ensure that they are not overlooked during rescue efforts.  Of importance to these efforts is the fact that vulnerable put family first and thus the need to keep them together at all times. Those that face severe crisis are mainly those who lose contact with their caregivers and those people that they depend upon. Some of these individuals do not have complete comprehension of their condition, posing a danger to them when they are separated from those who understand their condition. It has been noted by experts in palliative care that the surge in flu outbreaks can have deadly consequences for vulnerable people more so if they find themselves in a catastrophe8.  The authors also issue a challenge for persons with intentions to start a disaster that in light of the plight of the vulnerable, they should be included in the disaster management policy.

Congregational response to disaster through planning

It is also crucial to remember that response to a disaster is a communal effort with disaster relief groups being advised to liaise with specialists in planning for and managing such crisis, for instance, the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency(FEMA). Churches are also encouraged to urge members of their congregation not to visit sites of these disasters with no organizational affiliation.  When individuals participate with organizations, chances are that their expertise will be put to good use as compared to if they were to go at it autonomously.  Relief efforts that are already on-going can then be integrated with that of the disaster ministry. The reasoning behind this strategy is to leverage one’s experience, adding a creative variety to increase the interest of those already in the ministries, avoid the duplication of leadership and ministry together with better planning9. The handbook is practical and clearly written and most importantly is that it provides the local church with effective tools that it can utilize in the planning, execution, and implementation of their strategies. Churches can now get an insight into how they can take good care of their congregation in a more sustainable and smarter way.

Underscored in the book is the importance of preparedness which is the surest way of reducing the impact of the disaster. A church that is already prepared has the local congregation as its number one asset, the reason being that those in this demographic are in a unique position to provide help to their communities as far as disaster vigilance, response and recovery are concerned. Congregational leaders that support the disaster ministry claim that the congregations that they minister to are able to provide the community with a broad-based prevention scheme and holistic care for those affected physically, spiritually and emotionally by the disaster10. It was also an important point to note is that the congregations in these local churches can reach those individuals that other groups and agencies were unable to come to contact with help reaching all those requiring it.  To add to this, congregations can also act as a source for drastic action on the community due to their connection with them, assisting them in assessing their risks and needs while trying to identify all possible appropriate actions. The congregation has been put in a position that gives them the opportunity to act as advocates for the vulnerable and all marginalized people in a population. If this notion is implemented, the church can expect the fair distribution of food and health care by determining who requires help urgently. Provision of resources by the congregation is also listed as an advantage of the church’s involvement during these trying times. Some may provide evacuation centers, meeting spaces, facilities to store food, equipment, water and all resources relevant to the work that they are pursuing. As a center for communication, the congregation allows messages and meetings to pass on vital information to a significant audience on a timely regular basis. A willing body of committed volunteers is thus found in the congregation as their foundation is built on love and their motivation being compassion.

It is vital to acknowledge that this handbook has had a profound effect on my ideas about urban ministry. It is the Christian duty of all those in a congregation to prepare for disaster and those it may affect as it is what they would require during their time of need. From the handbook, I have come to the apprehension that using the three-stage approach to deal with a disaster can be one of the many practical ways that members of a church and the congregational leaders can use as a starting point. The approach revolves around people coming up with pragmatic ways of taking action even when in the midst of disaster. To develop high-quality emergency strategies, most Christian organizations and government agencies that are typically involved in emergency response use this approach. The disaster ministry thus has to take into consideration the unique calling, talent and gifts that the congregation possesses. From the manuscript, it is evident that those churches that were successful in developing a disaster ministry first started small and later on made a concerted effort to build on their strengths.

Lastly, I am of the opinion that every church library needs to have a copy of this handbook as it also provides the church leadership emergency email contacts and phone numbers that would be important when calamity strikes. Drs. Boan and Aten have most certainly laid the in-depth groundwork for any future study on the same subject, especially as pertains to the local churches being responsible for the needs of those who are vulnerable. What’s more is that these to authors have been quite instrumental in raising the bar when it comes to mercy ministry.

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