Red Cross Training on Delivering Pastoral Care During a Disaster

by Deacon Michael Sochka

[Fall, 2003]  

    We constantly read and hear in the news media that we live in a "post-9-11 world." While I have problems with that label, primarily because I see our lives lived in a "post-Resurrection" and "post-Ascension" world, for many, the events of September 11, 2001 profoundly affected their outlook on life. Post-9-11 or not, St. Paul 's words are certainly true, "the days are evil ..." Ephesians 5:16 . The question or issue for us as Christians is how do we respond to the evil of our times? How do we "make the most of our time?" Of particular interest is how to respond in a pastoral manner to the nameless grief, apprehension, and feelings of helplessness that we have seen and still see around us.

     In asking myself these questions I was, like so many, motivated to look for ways to understand the tragedy and help other people through their personal trauma. When I received an invitation from the American Red Cross to attend a conference on the impact of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on faith communities and their leaders I decided it was worth the trip to New York and the day off work. Some of what I learned from the conference surprised me, while other things seemed very familiar.

     One surprising piece of information is that the US Congress designated the American Red Cross as the national provider/organizer of spiritual care in a disaster, directly linking the Red Cross with FEMA and other state and local disaster relief agencies. The fact that spiritual care is a matter for the federal government may or may not surprise you. We owe the government's keen awareness of the importance of spiritual care during and after a disaster to another of our nation's tragedy, namely the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City .

   How spiritual care during a national disaster differs from spiritual care at other times is a matter of scale. As individuals we may lose loved ones to an accident or a home to fire. But when it's the whole nation the scale is bigger and so is the recovery time. History has to play out; we are faced with our own inability to control our environment. Recovery is in years, not months, and whole series of events re-open the wounds.

Main Themes of the Training

    As a whole progression of pastors, rabbis, priests, imams, and psychologists spoke, (obviously from different faith traditions) one thing was made very clear, that we must make ourselves available to help all people, even those outside our faith. We do this primarily by practicing the ministry of personal presence-listening to people and responding to them where they are. Specific techniques include assuring people, especially children, of their own personal safety and security. It is also critical to allow people to vent their feelings, and have those feelings validated. Finally in the "critical" phase of care, it is important to try to predict next steps and prepare the person for taking them. For someone that has been displaced, it may include transportation to a shelter and providing social workers to help him or her with practical matters.

     Since the conference was also designed to help spiritual caregivers, a lot of the information dealt with issues of compassion fatigue and burnout. Some important statistics from Oklahoma City included that 30 percent of the pastors left ministry work in the two or three year period after the bombing of the Federal Building . In part, this is because pastors had trouble reintegrating themselves with their families, friends and communities after being mobilized. Generally, this is because ministers have a rescuer's mentality and a tendency to devote and exhaust themselves helping others. There's also a tendency for ministers to see themselves as immune from stimulus that affects others. This highlights the need for spiritual care volunteers to receive adequate pre- and post-disaster training so that they can recognize possible effects of post-traumatic stress in themselves and seek appropriate care.

     It's interesting to note that most people prefer to talk to a member of the clergy than to a mental health worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist.

     To help clergy and other spiritual caregivers, the Greater New York chapter of the American Red Cross-the first chapter in the country to do so-provides certification classes for disaster spiritual care. In addition to "Volunteer Orientation" and "Introduction to Disaster Services", coursework includes "Serving the Diverse Community" and "Disaster Spiritual Care Services." Completion of the coursework enables clergy to receive a Red Cross badge and to accompany emergency workers in the Greater New York chapter area. An Emergency Services Ride-Along is the final requirement for being put on a regular disaster spiritual care rotation (once a month). While this was my immediate goal in signing up for the Red Cross training, I've also leveraged that training into a volunteer position with the International Orthodox Christian Charities, where I am helping to build a national network of Orthodox clergy to respond to disasters anywhere in the United States.

   Whether we are building a response network or responding one-on-one to the people in our everyday life, we are, in fact, responding to Christ and to His call to serve and love those around us. For much of my life I think this idea has been a bit of an abstraction. While professing my love for God and for people, it was all too easy for me to feel sympathetic, act superficially and still be focused almost entirely on my own life. For God, love is not an abstraction. We owe our existence to His love and to really respond with God's love to those around us requires more than feeling sympathetic and acting superficially. It requires us to give ourselves. But of course, what we give to God, we get back as a blessing.




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