Faithful responses to emergency

Boston Marathon bombing aftermath

Boston Marathon bombing aftermath

Although not traditional first responders, pastors and other ministry leaders prove an integral part of the response to any emergency. What they choose to do or not do impacts the entire community as people seek to deal with the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aftermath. I hope pastors, other ministers and church leaders might consider and discuss the following points for their benefit and the benefit of those they serve.

When it comes to facing evil, sin and death, I don’t think anyone can ever be an expert. The context of any situation and the needs of those affected vary. Our own resiliency and competencies change. I don’t think there can be a single, perfect response when we and our world are so imperfect.

The following comments are not meant to reflect expertise or suggest a perfect response, but they do reflect some things I have learned along my way as a former police officer and hospice chaplain. Currently, I serve as a volunteer law enforcement chaplain,[i] yet I am still learning. At the same time, I desire to learn from your comments and feedback based upon your own experiences and training. Please share them privately with me or in the comments section below.

Regarding unexpected emergencies and disasters:

1. Stay calm and listen: Listen to local media for instructions from emergency officials. As you listen, recognize that there exists a great deal of confusion. As the media and individual politicians seek to get information out quickly, the result is often many false reports and much bad information. Not unlike gossip, avoid passing this on or instinctually reacting to it as if true. Wait for official statements of first responders, disaster organizations, and government officials actually in charge of rescue operations and response. Even though these too can err, they remain your best sources for information to inform your own response and pass on. Try to listen to or watch any and all official press conferences. Prior to emergencies, consider following your local first responders, aid organizations, and local government, state and federal entities (especially departments of emergency management at the county and state level) on Twitter and Facebook. If they offer texts in emergencies, sign up for that service.

2. Observe and report: Before, during, and after an unexpected emergency don’t call 911 unless an emergency. Store your local first responder’s non-emergency numbers in your cell phone and address books prior to your need for them. These can be used in cases where there is no immediate or confirmed threat, leaving emergency lines open for those who really need them. Report all suspicious activity, as any info can be helpful. Let those in charge decide what is important. If community truly is a response to a common call, we must all seek to serve and protect those entrusted to us, our neighbors.

3. Avoid phone use in and to affected areas. Don’t overload the system with needless calls. No matter how concerned you are for a loved one, your call may inhibit first responder’s response to those in need and their use of communication assets. (In Boston, the media suggested officials had turned off cell service. It is more likely local service was overwhelmed as with past terrorist activity.) Remember also, cellular signals can inadvertently cause detonations of explosive devices and fumes. If you are in the immediate area of the emergency, follow the directions of emergency personal. Wait on calls until in a safe place or longer if possible. Even once in a safe place, Twitter and Facebook might be the best way to communicate. You might reach many more people at once.

After a recent earthquake, people could not reach our preschool as phone systems were overwhelmed. Through Twitter (including an automatic feed to our website) and Facebook, we were able to advise that everyone was safe, thus removing the need for calls to our location. After a hurricane, we were able to easily pass on information about emergency services and resources (such as ice, food and water) to those without regular phone service or power. Most people were still connected to the internet and social media through charging mobile phones in their cars.

4. Stay in a safe place. Don’t clog roads with needless travel or get in way of first responders. If they or aid agencies need help, they will ask for it. They will direct you to a staging area or advise of materials needed and collection points. Even in weather emergencies, don’t assume because you can get to your church people should be on the roads. Emergency responders and utilities will be slowed and unnecessarily taxed by accidents resulting from people thinking the roads are safe when they aren’t. Signals out at intersections can be as dangerous as downed trees, power lines and flooding. PLEASE follow the directives of your local and state governments. If they ask people to stay off the roads, don’t hold services or events. More traffic means more risk for emergency responders, transportation employees, and utility workers. Traffic related accidents is among the biggest killer for these publiuc servants. Sadly, businesses tend to ignore such directives, but I think they do so selfishly. Faith communities should and can do better.

5. Pray, comment and act wisely. As leaders in the community, the concept of being a non-anxious presence remains valid. While recognizing your own emotions and limits, it will not be the best time to share them openly and unfiltered on Facebook, Twitter or in person. Again, don’t add to the gossip and sharing of bad information. People will react to your own modeling of behaviors and attitudes, so seek to be prudent, loving and faithful.

If responding to an act of violence or terror, it is biblically sound to speak of the need to avoid scapegoating. Yet in speaking of love, peace, reconcilliation and forgiveness, let’s not forget the great challenges of those who might be called to a vocation where they must manage and use violence. They do so in order to serve and protect others. At their best, they are seeking to establish Christ’s justice and peace in the world, defend and protect the week, and love their neighbor – even their enemies at times. Choose your words wisely.

Unless you consider the Christian call one of pure pacifism, or you feel pacisifism a higher call, I would argue theirs can and should be deemed a holy vocation. Speaking solely of turning the other cheek and ignoring the real needs of police and others tasked to defend us serves to isolate them and can add to their immediate and long-term burden. As well, families and friends of victims might not be able to see past their anger yet, and anger can indeed be a justified, healthy response as long as we don’t get stuck in it or sin in our anger. Inadvertently, our words can wound their spirit and have long term, unintended consequnces upon recovery. I suggest that as we pray for love and forgiveness we might also pray for God’s justice and peace be achieved by those called to that task in our fallen world[ii]. We all need guidance in how to respond to and deal with such events. Let’s not forget the military, first responders, and victim families and the emotional, ethical turmoil they face.

Running down to the place of the emergency might be your gut instinct, but consider that you might get in the way or put yourself needlessly at risk. As you were likely urged a sa child, “Walk, don’t run.” You might not know all the threats and hurried responses can turn into accidents and error. Try to contact those in charge of a response before you act and seek their direction. (This might require your patience until things are under better control.)

In seeking to respond to the emergency, not everyone need put themselves in danger. Those outside the immediate area affected need ministry too. As Martin Luther suggested in Whether one may flee from a deadly plague (1527)[iii], don’t be too quick to become a martyr (or, I would add, a person in need of rescue). Considering individual gifts and the availability of others should impact any decision about who and how many should respond to any event. Again, listen to local authorities. Making preparations beforehand through emergency responders, relief agencies, and local ministeriums will prove helpful. As a volunteer fire-fighter (and pastor) told me, don’t be a hero. Instead, seek to work as a team rather than as a lone wolf. It will tend to make everyone safer.

6. Seek to be prepared. Before any emergency, I suggest you receive training and familiarize yourself with assets and their procedures beforehand. Volunteer for citizen police academies. Participate in emergency drills offered by fire and rescue. Train all staff in first aid and CPR. Connect with and get training from nonprofits and government entities that respond to emergencies before incidents happen. Join the other faith communities in FEMA’s National Preparedness Coalition: Make emergency plans for your institution. Examples are widely available from government and non-government entitities on the web. Along with joining FEMA’s National Preparedness Coalition, some churches and faith-based organizations might benefit from contacting the FEMA Voluntary Agency and Donations Coordination Section. Let others know about the American Red Cross’ Safe and Well Program and other nonprofit or government offerings to help prepare for and deal with disasters.

7. Do not be afraid. Yes, fear is a normal, God-given human response to help preserve life, but we shouldn’t let it be the primary control of our response no more than anger. Despite fear, sometimes we are called to act in love.

The world can be a dangerous place and people can prove frightening. As a police officer, I learned the hard way that despite all the evil I saw in person and in the often disproportionate media reporting, God was, is and will be still at work for our welfare – often through ordinary people with little fanfare. I needed to keep my eyes and heart open to those signs of hope, or I would become what I hated. Even during emergencies, striving for self-care to the best of your abilities will help us be open to the work of God before us and around us. Be honest about our limitations. Admit if you need help. Such behaviors will help us love others better in the long run and see God and the world more clearly.

When God seems hidden, it is all the more reason to hold on to Christ’s promises. He is there in the chaos! Let us cast all our cares upon Christ[iv] and seek to do whatever we as individuals and a community are called to do. Jesus is with us, and we might be in this place, time and circumstance so that he can be glorified through us. His body, the church, needs to be present at exactly such scary, dangerous times. As I headed out each night for duty, I chose to intentionally remember the promises of Romans 8; nothing not even death will separate us from the love of God[v]. More than comfort, it strengthened me for the shift ahead.

In the face of evil, sin and death, we need only seek to respond in faith, hope and love to the best of our imperfect abilities. Beyond that, Jesus has our back. So as Elliott Ness said in The Untouchables, “Alright now, let’s do some good.”[vi] No matter the odds against us, love will win the day. Do not be afraid. Act wisely in faith, hope and love.

In Virginia, consider following these agencies on Twitter, find them on Facebook and the web:
Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA)  @fema
Centers for Disease Control @CDCemergency, @CDCgov and more
Virginia Department of Emergency Management @VDEM
Your local Red Cross, for example @RedCrossRVA
Virginia Department of Health @MyVDH
Virginia Department of Transportation @VaDOT
Official local, state, and federal exective branch leadership & agencies
Local, state, and federal law enforcement serving your area
Public utilities serving your area
Your denominational or other faith tradition resources for disaster response

[ii] You might like to read Martin Luther’s pamphlet, On whether soldiers too can be saved? As a police officer, I found it helpful in dealing with the evil I faced and shaping how I should respond.

[vi] The Untouchables (1987). Paramount.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version.

© 2013 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.


1 Comment

Filed under Community Life, community services, Law Enforcement, Theology

One response to “Faithful responses to emergency

  1. This post is a work in progress. Based upon critiques received, I have already revised it. If you have ideas that could help, please share them with me. I hope to take this information and mold it into something that can be used as a handout or as part of a class to beneift the community.

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