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I Understand
Volume 3.1 / Disaster Ministry Handbook

Book Review

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Disaster Ministry Handbook

Book Authors: Jamie D. Aten and David M. Boan
Publisher: Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016. 205 pp. $19.00.
Reviewed by Dave Deuel

Dr. Jamie Aten is the founder and co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Dr. Arthur P. Rech and Mrs. Jean May Rech Associate Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College (Illinois). Dr. David M. Boan is associate professor of psychology at Wheaton College and codirector of the college’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute.

Churches can play crucial roles in disaster resilience and response. This book addresses the question of how local churches can assist in disaster risk and recovery globally, particularly in high-risk regions. Some churches are located in areas prone to disasters. Others have members who, although not living in high-risk regions, strongly desire to help others in disaster crises. The authors aim to prepare those with servant hearts from both perspectives by introducing them to the need for disaster assistance, suggesting reasons churches should get involved, and proposing ways that the local church is uniquely qualified to assist due to its structure and trust within the local community. Specifically, “the purpose of this book is to help churches learn how to plan, launch and sustain disaster ministries” (12).

What phenomena qualify as disasters? A disaster is “a man-made or natural event that results in death, injury and property damage which cannot be managed through normal, routine channels” (22). These include natural disasters, technological and accidental hazards, terrorist hazards, and public health emergencies. Disasters vary in complexity and impact and may be classified based on extent (local, widespread, and catastrophic, or high-visibility and low-visibility), phase (primary or secondary disasters, in which secondary is an effect of the first), and source (natural versus man-made disasters) (2425).

Understanding disasters is crucial. Because most disasters come in stages, the handbook is organized around specific phases in which churches can engage before, in the midst of, and after a disaster. Generally speaking, these three phases correspond to disaster preparation, response, and recovery. Most government agencies follow a similar practice in order to establish emergency plans.

The authors advise churches to start small, work with government and other non-governmental agencies, and develop the congregation for disaster intervention. The goal is to develop greater resilience to disasters.

Current trends work against disaster progress. Disasters are increasing in number, but available resources for response are decreasing. Shockingly, “since the 1980s there has been roughly a 400 percent increase in natural disasters. The world’s five costliest natural disasters have occurred in the past twenty years, with three of those disasters striking in the last eight years alone. There have also been 5,000 terrorist events annually over the last ten years” (13). With the increasing frequency of disasters and decreasing government resources, the church is offered a unique opportunity to reach out to its community in time of need.

Why are churches uniquely prepared to assist in disaster resilience and recovery? First, the local church which is in close proximity to a high-risk area is positioned to be the first to respond and the last to leave. Also, the church is part of the immediate community with all of its established relationships, whereas outside agencies that come to assist in disasters lack knowledge of the community and its cohesion. Finally, churches are likely to provide the corps of workers at a disaster site that understand the area, the people, and the local resources. For example, the vulnerable are often hard to locate during times of disaster upheaval. But because the local church is connected within the community, it has the potential to be more effective with vulnerable populations. Unfortunately, home address lists for the vulnerable are o en outdated (1516). For this and other reasons, government agencies reach out to local churches and their pastors for information. But why focus on the vulnerable?

The vulnerable suffer disproportionately from all types of disasters. The authors identify at least eight ways that the church is uniquely suited by its design to bring much-needed assistance to the vulnerable (14). People with disabilities are one vulnerable sector in the community. In fact, people with disabilities may be two to four times less likely to survive disasters than others.

The needs of the vulnerable are unique in disasters. The vulnerable might easily remain hidden to disaster efforts for they “often go unrecognized as vulnerable, or for a host of reasons are not helped by many public programs.... You may have heard it said that ‘Disasters don’t discriminate.’... The poor, fragile, very old and young, people with the fewest resources and connections are actually at more risk and have a more difficult time recovering than others. Therein lies an opportunity for the church” (13). But if an individual or church does not understand how vulnerability affects people, those people may fall between the cracks.

With the vulnerable, the need to keep families together is paramount. This means that in many cases, depending upon the severity of the disability and dependency, people with disabilities who have lost contact with caregivers are in severe crisis mode. Although this is true of any family with or without disability, it is especially true with disability because of the need for an informed person that understands an individual’s health and social issues. People with disabilities are often not well-informed about their own health issues, and some are completely unaware. They may not understand disease prevention. For example, flu outbreaks, which can be deadly for some vulnerable people, have increased in frequency (23). The authors passionately implore readers, saying, “We issue a challenge for those starting a disaster ministry to do so with the vulnerable in mind” (18).

Several details are crucial to remember. Because disaster response is a community e ort, the authors advise disaster relief groups to stay connected with disaster specialist organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Red Cross, as well as other churches in the area committed to disaster relief. Crucially, churches should not encourage individuals to go to disaster sites without organizational affiliation. They may do more harm than good. In fact, it is best to participate with experienced organizations and contribute in one’s area of expertise. In general, “whenever possible it is best to integrate a disaster ministry into things you already do” (59). The reasoning is sound: “This leverages your experience, introduces some creative variety that can increase interest among people in existing ministries, allows you to avoid duplication of ministry and leadership, and overall leads to better planning” (59).

The book is clearly-written and practical. What is more, it offers effective tools for planning and implementation drawn from a number of experienced disaster organizations and agencies (135175). As a supplement, the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (an organization to which both authors belong) o ers a web site focused on disaster ministry that is an excellent resource supporting the handbook. Charts, such as types of vulnerability (31), along with discussion questions at the end of each chapter, organize and simplify the content and o er help for readers to retain the material.

The authors have done a service to local churches in writing this book. Not only do they o er local bodies the opportunity to engage their communities, but they also give churches a way to care for their own members in a smarter and more sustainable way. Every church should have a copy of this book in its lending library. Pastors will need their own copy to mark up with notes specific to their congregations and communities, such as emergency phone numbers and email contacts.

In this clearly-written and practical manual, Drs. Aten and Boan have laid the groundwork for future studies, especially matters pertaining to local churches meeting the needs of the vulnerable. People with cognitive disabilities and forms of mental illness require special attention in disaster risk and recovery. In response, the authors have raised the bar on mercy ministry. I highly recommend this book to all local church and Christian organizational leaders whose constituents are willing to assist people during their time of disaster need, particularly the vulnerable located in high-risk disaster areas. 

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