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Lutheran Disaster Response

Thank You

Today marks my last day working as the Program Interpreter for Lutheran Disaster Response. Over the past 2+ years I have had the great honor of helping share with you all our work responding to disasters in the United States and internationally. Searching to find the words to describe how disasters have affected those impacted and how the church is playing a role in there recovery has been at times difficult as I realized behind each word I write is a community, a family, an individual whose world has been torn apart.

Yet, the humbling gift of being present in those moments where the hope which cannot be contained shines through the actions of neighbor helping neighbor, whether next door or across the globe, is one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. To witness as the church continues to be church in times of disaster, declaring “Here we stand. Our building and homes may be flooded, destroyed by earthquake, wind or rain, but we are not defined by this building. We are the body of Christ and whether we are at the cross or the tomb we lean on Christ and find comfort and the ability to comfort.”

As I think of this, two memories come to mind. First, are the words of Pastor Livenson, president of the Lutheran Church of Haiti: “We will not be defined by rubble but by restoration, for we are a people of the resurrection.” And the second is the worship of Peace Lutheran Church in Joplin, MO held in their parking lot the Sunday after a tornado destroyed their building. These bold words and actions, quietly spoken and solemnly engaged, stand for me as some of the truest examples of what defines church.

For these memories and the countless others that stand behind them, I am grateful. May God continue to bless this amazing ministry and the cloud of witnesses who find in this work the call God has put on their lives. Through your actions the love of Christ and the work of the kingdom have been made known. To this I add my most heartfelt Amen.

– Matthew Ley

Hurricane Sandy: Disaster Response 101

In the U.S. Hurricane Sandy made landfall on October 29th, 2012 in New Jersey. That makes yesterday 101 days since this event and I figured it was a good time to check in with where we’re at with the response. Now some people really do better with process and others prefer stories. So I’m going to present this in two ways: first by looking at where we sit in the “typical” flow of a disaster response and then by sharing the story of Lutheran HealthCare in New York and how they’ve been affected and responded to Sandy. Feel free to read both or to jump to your preference.

By the Numbers
Those experienced with disaster work like to use a simple tool for explaining the process of disaster response known as the “Rule of 10”. This rule states that as you move through the first three phases of disaster response (incident, immediate response and recovery) the average individual or community will take ten-times longer to move through next phase than it took to move through the previous one. The incident phase is focused on securing safety and involves activities like rescue and first responders. The immediate response phase is focused on setting a secure foundation and involves activities such as assessment, demolition and initial clean up. The recovery is focused on helping people and communities regain their new sense of normal and involves activities like muck out and rebuilding. The benefit of volunteers increases as you move through these phases, with recovery being the greatest phase of volunteer impact.

For Sandy, most people were in the incident phase for two weeks (14 days), meaning the average length of immediate response will be 140 days (4.7 months) and the average length of recovery will be 1400 days (3.8 years). When you add in the nor’easter that hit the region in November, the holiday season and the potential snow storm hitting the east coast this weekend, the definition of what is “average” begins to change and the movement through phases can slow down. So as we sit at 102 days out, the average person and community is about 90 days into the immediate response phase, working to set the firm foundation upon which they can rebuild. Each community and individual was affected differently, so those really affected by the external circumstances may be still in the earlier parts of immediate response while others may already be transitioning into recovery.

Yet wherever a community or individual is at they are their because of the amazing efforts made by individuals, many who will forever remain in the shadows, who have stepped up to give of time, talents and resources. Which brings me to the second part of this post.

Lutheran HealthCare
Lutheran HealthCare is situated in southwest Brooklyn, NY and is no stranger to this churches disaster response work. After the massive earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, Lutheran HealthCare raised nearly $12,000 to support relief efforts their. They also took in many Haitians because of the strong Haitian presence in their already diverse staff of around 5,000. So when Sandy struck they responded, receiving in evacuees from the surround community. And though scattered throughout the five boroughs of New York City with closed roads and shutdown public transit and over 100 employees personally affected by the storm, staff were finding any means necessary to get to work, like $50 cab rides. Many of the staff were working double and triple shifts, sleeping at the hospital, yet making sure needs were being met.

And this generosity was not just from the staff to the community but internal as well with over 250 days off (about $75,000 worth) transferred between staff to members who had destroyed or damaged homes. They also had a massive amount of internal in-kind donations of needed items. They have also raised over $40,000 in financial donations, which were seeded by Lutheran Disaster Response. They also hosted 2 prayer services and support groups through mid-November.

As they and their community move through the immediate response phase they are continuing to be present by offering crisis counseling through Project Hope, a program of FEMA, and case management to help individuals navigate the opportunities for recovery available to them. As they move into recovery they will continue to be there, because really they were already their, living and working in the community to which they belong. And this is the strength of our work, that wherever we respond we are responding locally, from within the community on behalf of the community.

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Gifts to ELCA Disaster Response allow the church to respond domestically and internationally in times of need. Donate now.

Haiti: Three Years Later

Today marks three years since the massive earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010. Anniversary moments like this can strike us in a number of ways, as we are called to remember and reflect back. For some this moment calls to mind the tragedy of the event: the 220,000 left dead, the over 300,000 injured and the 1.5 million people left homeless. One can also recall the struggling infrastructure of an impoverished country brought to a standstill or an international community scrambling to respond. Adding to the tragedy, one can also recall the number of subsequent disasters that have stuck the country, from Hurricane Tomas (November 2010) to Tropical Storm Isaac (August 2012) to Hurricane Sandy (October 2012).

When one looks back in this way it a can all seem a little overwhelming and something better forgotten or ignored. Disasters have a way of doing that. They can tax us as they not only bring their own set of problems to the communities they affect, but also have a way of heightening problems that existed beforehand. This is particularly true of those communities and locales which exist in a state of poverty. And so the double tragedy of disaster: those who least can afford the costs of a disaster are the ones most affected by it.

It is a depressing and devastating place to be. And it is here, in these moments of despair and tragedy, that the church is most relevant to the response. For the church can name and acknowledge the reality of these situations while continuing to claim that they are not the final word. That, like many moments in our lives, in the midst of these tragedies God is still present weeping with us at the pain of the events and also calling us to new life in the midst of them.

As we look back on the past three years in Haiti this call to new life urges us to also look forward, formed but not defined by these events. In Haiti this can be seen in the outpouring of support from around the world to come to the aid of our brothers and sisters in need (the ELCA alone saw an outpouring of gifts topping $13 million). It can also been seen in the thoughtful and intentional focus on projects funded by the ELCA that build on assets already available in the community, helping them invest in their own future.

Here are some of these opportunities. A poultry project started by Lutheran Church of Haiti that has brought stability to prices and therefore hope to those in the program. There is the vocational training center where local Haitians are partnering with companions from the U.S. to learn trades that can be used within their local communities. There is the model village in Gressier, which will provide sustainable (financially and environmentally) housing for 200 families structured with community input and control. There is also the cholera work of The Lutheran World Federation and Lutheran Church in Haiti, working to inform and protect local communities from disease unknown to the region before the earthquake.

It is also the presence of a young Lutheran church in Haiti finding its voice as it brings God’s words of hope and healing to God’s communities in need. This is summed up beautifully in the powerful words of the Lutheran Church of Haiti’s president the Rev. Joseph Livenson Lauvanus: “We Haitians will not be defined by the rubble, but by restoration, for we are a people of the resurrection.”

As we take this moment to remember, may we all be led to heed and celebrate the message of hope borne in these words.

Please take a moment of silence and/or prayer at 4:34 p.m. local Haiti time (EST), exactly three years after the earthquake struck.

Year End Thoughts

On this last day of the year, many people take the time to reflect back upon the past year. I would like to take a few minutes to do so as well.

My first thoughts go to those who were impacted by disasters. Along with my thoughts, my prayers are with them. While we have had some very large disasters, ones that were in the news for many days at a time, I also want to remember the “small disasters.” No matter the size of the storm, to those they affect, they are huge and life changing.

I think of those who volunteered. So much of disaster recovery work is done by volunteers, and most of the time, there is little recognition of them or their efforts. One only needs to look at the smiles of a family able to move back into their home after a disaster to know the value of volunteers and how much they are appreciated.

I also think of those who are part of the Lutheran Disaster Response network, especially the local coordinators. We simply cannot do our work without them as they are the “boots on the ground” that provide the local connections so essential to effective recovery efforts.

None of us knows what disasters will come in 2013; we hope and pray they are few and far between. But when a disaster does strike, we at Lutheran Disaster Response will be ready to provide a measure of help, hope and healing through our network and volunteers.

Hurricane Sandy: Accompaniment in Action

As many of us are still struggling to make sense of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, I have been reflecting on what it means to truly be present for people in the midst of their tragedy, to walk with them, to accompany them. These questions brought to mind the recent ELCA delegation to the East Coast to express our solidarity with those affected by Superstorm Sandy.

From November 30 and December 2, the delegation visited communities and congregations affected by Superstorm Sandy in New York and New Jersey. What stuck out to me and what made this visit particularly momentous was that it is the first time in our church’s history where the delegation was accompanied by leaders from three Lutheran church bodies from around the world. Representing the Lutheran World Federation as the “living letter of comfort and hope” were the Bishop Elisa Buberwa of the Northwestern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania; Bishop Cindy Halmarson, of the Saskatchewan Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada; and the Rev. Dr. Veikko Munyika of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia.

As a member of the ELCA delegation, I feel particularly honored to have had the three leaders riding with me during those four days. It was a privilege to get to know them on a more personal level and to deepen my appreciation for their dedication to being the “living letter” of accompaniment. To begin with, all agreed to take part in this delegation and its intense schedule with very short notice and graciously embraced the very packed visit, despite their jetlag. But what most moved me was in every congregation and community we visited, these three leaders would listen and listen and listen, listening and embracing the pain, anger, uncertainties and the hope expressed by those who were directly or indirectly affected. Joining Bishop Hanson and our ELCA colleagues, they would ask the questions: What has changed for you in the last few weeks? What has given you hope? What do you want to see in the near future?

In thinking through the experience several moments came to mind that highlighted the impact and importance of the trip:

Bishop Halmarson addressing Metro New York bishops conference.

  • Bishop Halmarson from Canada was actually a native of Connecticut. Her down to earth style and affinities with the affected communities made her pastoral embrace particularly effective and meaningful for all. On a number of occasions, she commended the ELCA for the willingness to accept our vulnerability by receiving the pastoral visit from leaders of the Lutheran communion. Such actions help deepen the meaning and reality of accompaniment throughout our worldwide communion. On a more personal level of accompaniment, Bishop Halmarson took on the role of navigator, guiding me through the busy streets and bridges of New York and New Jersey as I drove the unfamiliar terrain.

Bishop Buberwa addressing Metro New York bishops conference.

  • On the first day, Bishop Buberwa was the preacher for the morning worship service at the pastor’s retreat of the Metropolitan New York Synod (MNYS), with which his diocese has a companion relationship, before our visit to affected areas. Before he preached, Bishop Buberwa gently presented a check to Bishop Rimbo on behalf of the people from his Diocese in Tanzania. That simple act of giving by fellow Lutherans from across the globe saw a lot of teary eyes around the room. The next day, I joined Bishop Buberwa at the same table when we gathered at Zion Lutheran Church, Staten Island to listen to the community. In the middle of the conversation, he asked a very simple yet important question in his soft spoken and compassionate voice, “How about the children?” That question generated rounds of very lively discussions among those around the tables. It is heartening to hear the resilience of children and how all of them learn to care for others in the aftermath of the event.

Rev. Dr. Munyika surveying the damage on Staten Island.

  • Dr. Munyika from Namibia was on his first trip to the U.S. and expressed it was very impactful for him. He recalled how he and his compatriots felt extremely isolated during their struggle for independence several decades ago. In the midst of feeling completely shunned by the world community, he discovered members of the ELCA and our predecessor bodies were actively supporting their cause. That act of accompaniment gave them hope and renewed their strength. For this visit, he promised to share what he heard and saw with the wider Lutheran Communion when he returned home – not only the stories people heard from the news media, but more importantly the stories of those whom he touched and heard.

It is always good to know that we have friends, not only in our neighborhoods and backyards but also in all corners of the earth through our Lutheran communion and beyond. Through these individuals and communities the presence of Christ is made manifest in our lives as we walk in the valley and the shadow. These acts of accompaniment are truly a gift.

Hurricane Sandy: The Strength of a Network

We often speak about our domestic disaster response work being done through a network of affiliates. The following is a great example of what this looks like in practice.

Lutheran Family and Children’s Services (LCFS) of Missouri, a Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) affiliate, was not directly affected by Hurricane Sandy. Yet because of the strength of the LDR network which includes our membership in coalitions like, Coordinated Assistance Network (CAN), a member of their disaster response team has been able to help in the response. The data manager for LFCS’s Disaster Case Management Program, Don Emge, was asked by the national staff at CAN to help with development and case manager training.

Using his experience from working in Missouri, which has been affected by a series of disasters including the tornado in Joplin last May, Don is working with the Red Cross and FEMA to mobilize efforts after Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy. He is helping to initiate new case management programs up and refining training procedures so that as many as a hundred new case managers can be up and running. He is also keeping an eye on making sure the work they set up now can easily transition into the long-term recovery efforts.

So in a short while Don’s two week deployment will come to an end and he will return to Missouri to again engage in his good work there. Yet, the effects of his time will be felt, though perhaps not recognized, for years to come. And so the body of Christ works, through the relationships of a network, going when the call is raised, and working in quiet ways to bring hope and healing.

We thank Don and all those countless others who are a part of this network, through your actions, financial support and prayers. May God continue to bless this work.

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Gifts to ELCA Disaster Response allow the church to respond domestically and internationally in times of need. Donate now.