Relationships key in disaster response

The volunteers, officials and community leaders gathered in a semi-circle, around the small, newly-built house in Alaska, with their focus solely on one person: the owner, a survivor of flooding, moving into her new home.

Zach Wolgemuth and David Myers
Zach Wolgemuth (left) of Brethren Disaster Ministries enjoys an exchange with David Myers, director of the Center for Faith-Based and Community-Based Initiatives for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, during a conference break.
Photo: Matt Hackworth/CWS

Obama official addresses CWS gathering of U.S. disaster response leaders

By Matt Hackworth/CWS

New Windsor, Maryland--The volunteers, officials and community leaders gathered in a semi-circle, around the small, newly-built house in Alaska, with their focus solely on one person: the owner, a survivor of flooding, moving into her new home.

"We surrounded her in support," David Myers recounts. "For me, that's the perfect image of how the church and the state should come together."

Myers is the director of the Center for Faith-Based and Community-Based Initiatives for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. A Mennonite pastor and appointee of President Obama, Myers told more than 60 disaster response leaders that faith-based agencies are an integral partner with the federal government in helping communities recover from disaster.

"People of faith should help the state do as much good as they can," Myers said. "President Obama believes there are certain challenges that cannot be solved without strong partnerships between church and state."

Those partnerships can become tenuous, given the clear separation mandated by the U.S. Constitution. Yet helping communities recover from disaster involves providing many services and supports that compel government and faith groups to interact. As each faith-based disaster response group has its own niche or specialty, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has called on specific groups to meet identified needs, even in an era where government contractors fill disaster care roles.

FEMA Voluntary Agency Liaison Jono Anzalom says disaster services provided by the faith-based community have growing visibility. "There's definitely an increase in potential for more federal and faith-based organization partnership," says Anzalom. "The relationships are much stronger than they have been in the past."

Forming partnerships is but one goal of the 2010 Church World Service Domestic Disaster Ministries Forum, the only regular gathering of U.S. faith-based disaster response agencies. The theme for this year's bi-annual event, held in New Windsor from April 17-20:  "Changing Times… Unchanging Mission: Equipping Disaster Ministry for Tomorrow."

"What we're trying to do is address some of the challenges that come up in the rapidly-changing field of disaster response," says Bob Arnold, a consultant for CWS who helped plan the event. "Privatization of services, how to secure funding, how to work to tell the story of disaster recovery, how faith-based and federal agencies can collaborate... these are just a few of the things we're addressing."

The Forum brings together disaster responders, government officials, scientists and scholars to tackle key issues. It is the fourth such gathering since 2004.

"It is increasingly clear that responding to disasters has new, evolving challenges," CWS Director of Development and Humanitarian Assistance Donna Derr said. "Our hope is that the Forum can help serve as the starting point to address challenges and move us forward."

For Myers, moving forward means defining the church and state relationship not in terms of groups but in terms of person-to-person relationships.  

"What happens is people will begin to connect, the normal barriers that often divide us are broken down, we become empathetic and provide better care to people in need," Myers said.

Media Contact:
Lesley Crosson, 212-870-2676, lcrosson@churchworldservice.org
Jan Dragin, 781-925-1526, jdragin@gis.net


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