Last December, I stood next to a woman looking with sad eyes at the burned out remains of a building. “Did you live here?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied. She then went on to tell me about how she had escaped the fires that overwhelmed the town of Gatlinburg. She had left her pets behind, fleeing for her life.
I told her that I was a Pastor and that I would like to pray with her.
After the prayer she asked me, “Since you’re a Pastor, can you tell me, was God punishing me by taking away my pets because I left them behind?”
I assured her that though we all had sins, God had shown His love for us by sending his Son to die on the cross, and that if we believed in Him, we could be certain that all of our sins were forgiven and that we stood before God as if we had done everything right. She said that she believed, and I assured her of God’s love for her, even though times were tough right now.
I prayed with her again. I gave her my card. I left, and she left. I was gratified a few weeks later to get a text from her. “Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. It really helped.”
On November 23, 2016, fires worked their way down the mountains to the town of Gatlinburg and destroyed 2400 buildings, killed 14, and left thousands displaced. It was a disaster like I had never experienced before.
The next few days were filled with making sure our members were alright, crying with people, watching the news to get updates, and trying to figure out what to do.
Over the next few months, I had a lot of opportunities to work with and talk to people affected by the fires. One was the woman I mentioned in the opening story.
As I watch another disaster unfold in South Texas, my mind has gone back to those days in Gatlinburg, and tears have returned to my eyes as I think of the trauma of them. It’s still hard to believe.
I think of Pastors who will be confronting this disaster in Texas. I think of other Pastors who will experience similar disasters. To them, I’d like to offer here a few lessons I learned from living through disaster.
1. Call your congregation together for prayer and worship. The fires were Monday. We had a worship service on Wednesday. The fires on everyone’s mind. We needed to give ourselves a proper outlet for the horror we had just witnessed.
2. Drop what you’re doing and make the disaster a priority. The fires gave me opportunities to connect with people I never would have been able to connect with. The whole experience was very difficult, but it provided some amazing opportunities to experience the love of Christ given and received.
3. Go where people are. Find out where people who have left their homes, and go there, if you can. When I think of the woman in the opening story, I think God used my presence and concern as much as my words. Presence matters.
4. Ask people to share their experiences of the disaster with you. This seems counter-intuitive, but it really does help. What stays in the dark hurts. What comes to the light heals.
5. Pray with people. People may not want to hear about your church, but most people appreciate it when you pray with them.
6. Ask for money. When you hear from people who want to help, ask for money. You won’t know what to do with it right away, but ask. I’m really glad that we did (later than I should have). This gave us a fund with which we were able to help and connect with many victims of the fires.
7. Don’t worry about giving the money away immediately. There will be an initial outpouring of gifts for your community. It will abate. When it does, you will have a fund with which to help those who are still in need. If it’s anything like our area, it will be a lot of people.
8. See what others are doing about the disaster and then join with them. This saves you from having to reinvent the wheel, gets you into the action more quickly, and helps you connect with more people in your community. One man in our church took some people and went and joined with Samaritan’s Purse in sifting through the ashes of a home that had burnt down. He made a great connection with the people involved and the owner of the house.
I’m not expert on disaster response. I’m just a Pastor who experienced it, am thankful for the opportunities I had to minister in it, and wish I had done some things differently.