The Theology of Disaster Relief and Rehabilitation
By Thomas Kemper*
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one for the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40
The church experiences and engages in God’s mission as it pours itself out for others, ready to cross every boundary to call for true human dignity.... Global Ministries’ Theology of Mission Statement
Jesus was steeped in the Jewish tradition of holiness and instructed in the care of humanity. Matthew 25 spells out the obligation Jesus’ followers have for those who are hungry, thirsty, sick, unclothed, or in prison. In the Great Commandment, Jesus tells us to love and care for our neighbors as we care for ourselves—an admonition also from the Old Testament—and in Galatians 5:14, the Apostle Paul uses “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” to sum up the whole of religious law.
Identifying with and assisting individuals and communities affected by disasters are ways that Christians follow Jesus Christ—whether those disasters are naturally or humanly generated. The mission theology statement of the General Board of Global Ministries makes this point clear: In God’s mission, “Jesus poured himself out in servanthood for all humanity” and “the church experiences and engages in God’s mission as it pours itself out for others.”
Thomas Kemper on a visit to Palestine. PHOTO: MELISSA HINNEN
This understanding of God’s mission highlights the spirit of disaster response necessary for post-disaster restoration. For that reason, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is a natural part of our denomination’s mission agency. We follow and find Christ in disaster situations.
Many United Methodists take part in UMCOR’s disaster relief ministries through offerings given on UMCOR Sunday or by contributing funds through the Advance. A fair number of church members volunteer for cleanup and rebuilding after hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, or sometimes even armed combat. Whatever form it takes, Christian humanitarian relief is a deep affirmation of theological conviction.
Distribution of UMCOR food portions in Akhtarin, Aleppo, Syria. PHOTO: INTERNATIONAL BLUE CRESCENT
Concern for those in distress after a calamity is rooted in both the Old and New Testaments. As Rabbi Myrna Matsa observes: “The people of God accept in perpetuity the message of Leviticus 19:2: ‘You shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy’ and holiness means to nurture the earth, care for humanity, and leave the world in a better condition than the way we found it.”
Acts 11 tells the story of what may have been the first Christian collection for disaster survivors. When the church in Antioch learned that fellow believers in Judea faced famine, “the disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea.” (Acts 11:29) In the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, Jesus broadens the definition of a “neighbor,” cutting across ethnic and religious boundaries for the sake of human service and dignity.
Our Wesleyan Heritage
Our Methodist heritage, stemming from John Wesley’s ministry in 18th century England, includes a strong concern for people in jeopardy owing to human-caused or natural calamities. Wesley saw some of the results of rapid industrialization as disastrous. He railed against factories’ pollution of the air, water, and soil, and he started small enterprise programs to rescue at least some women and children from the mills.
An International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) distribution at St Afram’s Church (Syriac Orthodox) in Jordan. A number of families received school kits, hygiene kits, and supplies for babies from UMCOR. PHOTO: IOCC AND JESSICA HARGREAVES
Wesley’s ministry extended to those sick from all causes, including industrial contamination. Medicine was not highly developed in his time. Germs and microbes had not been identified, and existing health services were largely limited to the wealthy. Despite the many demands on his time, Wesley compiled the best available medical information, including home remedies, in a book entitled Primitive Physick. Every Methodist preacher making rounds on horseback in England was expected to carry this handbook in his saddle bag. The book became the best-selling practical manual of 18th century England.
This powerful Wesleyan tradition of concern for the vulnerable was at work in 1940, at the onset of World War II, when US Methodists first set up what is today UMCOR. Its founding was triggered in part by memories of the horrendous effects of World War I on civilian populations. Bishop Herbert Welch conceived the idea as a loving response to a world of violence. God’s grace equips us for this obligation.
Humility and Confidence
Another Wesleyan theological theme addresses the attitude of the responders in disaster relief and subsequent rehabilitation. John Wesley built into Methodism the conviction that all people need the grace of God to be redeemed. This has special application for church members who set out to do “good works.” It is a reminder that the helpers—the funders and the cleanup teams—are not superior in divine favor to those being assisted. To follow Jesus in servanthood to others is to be baptized in humility. We seek to be both confident and modest, asking not how our action makes us look, but how putting our faith into action contributes to human welfare, peace, justice, and reconciliation.
A man pushes his wife in a wheel chair in the Zaatari refugee camp near Mafraq, Jordan. The ACT Alliance, of which UMCOR is a member, provides a variety of services to refugees living in the camp. UMCOR has also supported refugee programs through International Orthodox Christian Charities in the camp. PHOTO: PAUL JEFFREY
As the embodiment of United Methodist disaster response, UMCOR offers services and presence without regard to religion, race, nationality, politics, or gender. It responds to small as well as large, well-publicized disasters. John Wesley admonished Methodists to do as much good and as little harm as possible in the world. Those are guiding precepts in our response to disaster.
An Expression of Faith
The church’s disaster response is an expression of our faith, a confirmation of our discipleship, and a witness to our love for our neighbors. As United Methodists, we do not distribute food, water, blankets, flood buckets, and health kits or rebuild shelters and schools with the objective of converting others either to Christianity or to Methodism. Such a goal would miss the point of God’s grace which is offered without any strings attached. Disasters are opportunities for service, inviting us to our highest levels of compassion and concern. The theology of presence requires few words.
We also take a broad view of partnerships in disaster relief and rebuilding. In the continuing response to the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, UMCOR works with Methodist or ecumenical partners not only from the Caribbean and Latin America but also from Canada and the United Kingdom. We also cooperate with nonprofit agencies not affiliated with the church. In working with refugees fleeing the devastating 5-year-long civil war in Syria, UMCOR works with other Christian, nondenominational, and Muslim organizations.
Preserving and Restoring
Working with others, including other religious groups and government entities, serves a theological objective: to recognize the fullness—the wholeness—of God’s created order and to collaborate with others in the restoration and preservation of all creation, including human families and communities. The focus is often on “the least of these” from Matthew 25, because the weakest—the poor, the isolated, and the elderly—are often hardest hit by natural and human-caused disasters. Methodists have always been strongly committed to ministry with the poor.
UMCOR and Global Health support development projects around the world, such this integrated project in Guatemala that reached more than 800 participants with WASH projects, community health training, family planning, better farming methods, seed distribution, animal husbandry, and other efforts to improve overall health and food security. PHOTO: BEHRHORST PARTNERS IN DEVELOPMENT
Restoration of housing, social institutions, and the means of making a living are long-term post-disaster tasks. UMCOR is well known as an agency that arrives early and stays the longest through disaster recovery. Our work in response to the prolonged war in Bosnia lasted for years after hostilities ceased, covering a full decade and involving the restoration of farms. Work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has now extended for 16 years, and in Sudan and South Sudan, more than a decade. Job training and the rebuilding of homes, schools, and other infrastructure in Haiti is ongoing, carried out in close collaboration with local communities and the Haitian Methodist Church (Eglise Methodiste d’Haiti). UMCOR is especially skilled in post-disaster case management, a process that helps people get back on their feet economically and socially. Sometimes a new start can take place in the area affected by the disaster, but sometimes people have to start over in a new place. UMCOR received major public contracts in case management following Hurricane Katrina, which devastated large areas of the US Gulf Coast in 2005. Much of the response was in collaboration with mission volunteer teams, as was also the case in northeastern states in response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
In fact, every annual conference in the United States has trained disaster-response teams. Equipping such teams is a matter of both practical and theological necessity. As in the parable of the wedding guests in Matthew 25:1-13—in which the bridesmaids need to carry extra oil for the lamps used to welcome the wedding party—we must be ready when God invites us to respond to human need. The message is to “be alert,” and that requires training in disaster response.
A question that often arises is whether UMCOR engages in the replacement or repair of churches destroyed or damaged in disasters. Since 2009, UMCOR has operated with a policy that up to 10 percent of the emergency funds raised for any particular US relief effort can be used for church repair and related needs. In 2010, this policy was extended to international disaster response as well.
In keeping with the nonsectarian nature of UMCOR, the policy takes into account the reality that community restoration may include restoration of a place of worship of some other faith. Requests for domestic or international grants for work on places of worship are made independently of requests for money for humanitarian aid, but they follow the same process of accountability and careful review.
God at Work Through Us
God is at work everywhere, all the time. So, in God’s mission, we seek to serve others in humility and confidence. We know that everyone needs—and has access to—God’s grace. In disaster response, we know there is no perfect humanitarian solution. We simply do our best, praying for the Holy Spirit’s guidance as we put our theology to work in action—doing as much good as we can.
*Thomas Kemper is general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries.
Copyright New World Outlook magazine, Spring 2017 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.
UNITED METHODIST COMMITTEE ON RELIEF
UMCOR exists to assist United Methodists and churches to become involved globally in direct ministry to persons in need through programs of relief, rehabilitation, and service, including issues of displaced persons, hunger and poverty, disaster response, and disaster risk reduction; and to assist organizations, institutions, and programs related to annual conferences and other units of The United Methodist Church in their involvement in direct service to such persons in need.
The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016, ¶ 1315.