Baptist groups at forefront of ecumenical disaster relief
“In a world in which the church gets a lot of bad press, you count a lot on the other end of the scale for us,” said the head of ABC-USA at a gathering of the NABF Disaster Response Network.
By Jeff Brumley
In an age of declining respect for churches and an overall disinterest in religion, sometimes it takes a tornado or earthquake to show the world that Baptists and other Christians can, in fact, do something right.
That was one of the messages to come from this week’s two-day meeting of the North American Baptist Fellowship’s Disaster Response Network.
At least it was the point that Roy Medley had for the group when they gathered Wednesday and Thursday at the headquarters of the American Baptist Churches USA in King of Prussia, Pa.
The network’s “relief efforts have been a wonderful exercise in cooperative Christianity,” said Medley, general secretary of ABC-USA. “In a world in which the church gets a lot of bad press, you count a lot on the other end of the scale for us.”
After Medley’s brief Wednesday visit, the 25-member group tackled thorny issues such as if and how to perform background checks on volunteers, how to improve coordination among different groups in disaster zones and whether the network should become, in effect, its own disaster-relief agency.
Involved in the cordial discussions were representatives from wide-ranging organizations, including ABC-USA, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Texas Baptist Men, the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention, the Baptist General Convention of Missouri and others.
Network members noted that the cooperation seen among Baptists in the conference room this week is often mirrored in the field when disaster victims’ despair is surging.
The reason comes down to basic theology, said Kevin Murphy, who represented Lott Carey at the meetings.
“It goes back to an underlying biblical principle: feed the hungry, clothe the naked and just love your neighbor,” he told ABPnews/Herald during a break. “It goes beyond our differences directly to the teachings of Christ.”
‘Multiple faith groups’
And it even goes beyond Baptists, said Dean Miller, disaster relief and Virginia missions coordinator for the Virginia Baptist Missions Board.
“You will find when it comes to disaster response, that is something Christians regardless of stripe can rally around,” Miller told ABPnews/Herald by phone because he was unable to attend the Pennsylvania meetings.
The resulting cooperation over the years has led different groups to specialize in different response activities. Mormons are known for warehousing and logistics, the Southern Baptist Convention for feeding, Mennonites for rebuilding homes, Methodists for immediate recovery work like debris removal and muck-out and CBF for long-term recovery.
The ecumenical nature of disaster response can even become interfaith in some cases, Miller said.
“This is something where it’s not just where Christian groups or mainline or evangelicals are working, but multiple faith groups can rally around and respond to those in need,” he said.
But Miller added that despite the ecumenical spirit brought out in disaster relief, the actual work is often done separately from one another.
That usually occurs because as they arrive in a given town, denominational recovery groups will stay at corresponding churches in different parts of town. What results is an unofficial dividing up of a community along neighborhood lines.
“Most of the time we respond ecumenically but we are a little bit segregated,” Miller said. “We just have our own assets and our own stuff.”
And there are still yet other times when the ecumenical and interfaith spirit of disaster response is dictated by the situation on the ground, said NABF General Secretary George Bullard.
“There is more collaboration with religious and secular groups when it comes to disaster response, but some of it is mandatory,” Bullard said.
In some disaster zones, all relief work is overseen by the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster Relief, or VOAD.
That organization, or any other that it appoints in a given area, assigns tasks to its member groups. Often those assignments require groups to work with one another, Bullard said.
“If you are not a VOAD organization, you can’t get into certain places, and so part of that collaboration is necessary by the very nature of the beast,” he said.
‘We need to collaborate’
But interfaith and interdenominational collaboration becomes more natural the longer the relief work continues, he added.
In the initial phase, known as relief, groups may descend on an area intent to help their own church communities. It’s natural for them to work alone in those projects.
But as the work enters into the recovery and then rebuilding phases, Bullard said, natural partnerships often evolve between religious groups as they complement each other’s skill sets.
“The longer you are into a place, you are saying ‘who has resource A because we have resource B,’” he said. “Then we need to collaborate.”
The issue of cooperation — and at what level — also arose during the NABF Disaster Response Network meetings.
During a Thursday discussion of whether the network itself should become a VOAD member, participants grappled with what it would mean for the network to change from a forum for sharing best practices and resource sharing to becoming a response organization, per se.
NABF network evolving
Network convener Marla Bearden, disaster response specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, suggested initial collaborate efforts at hotspot areas like the Philippines and Haiti. Another could be flood recovery in Colorado.
Gaylon Moss, disaster relief coordinator for North Carolina Baptist Men, urged the group to move cautiously.
“If you join VOAD ... NABF [Disaster Response] will have to beome another organization,” Moss said. “Our [original] intent with NABF was not to create another entity, another disaster organization.”
The VOAD issue aside — and the group agreed to appoint a task force to study joining — other members said they would like to see the network become more collaborative in disaster-response work.
CBF Disaster Response Coordinator Tommy Deal suggested the network could eventually function to coordinate relief efforts in given situations. That would prevent the duplication of efforts and working at cross purposes that often occurs in disaster situations.
Glimpses of such cooperation occurred in Texas after the city of West was devastated by a deadly fertilizer plant explosion, and in Oklahoma after a series of huge twisters struck Moore and surrounding communities in 2013, Deal said.
The BGCT coordinated efforts in Texas, making it easier for other groups to come in and get logical work assignments. CBF did the coordinating in Oklahoma. Deal said the NABF network could take on such a role in the future.
Miller said he can see individual NABF members agreeing to take on projects together.
At the moment “we don’t say ‘let’s come together and go to Haiti and do this work,’” Miller said. “But I think that’s coming.”
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