I wrote a piece on the Church’s response to disaster relief in the Spring issue of Religion & Liberty. The article for R&L is in part an extension of my commentary “Out of the Whirlwind: God’s Love and Christian Charity” after a tornado hit Joplin, Mo. in May.
Being a Katrina evacuee myself, I returned to the Mississippi Gulf Coast for a time after seminary and the devastation of so many things I was familiar with and had known was simply surreal. I even went along for some in home visits and I can tell you that listening to people and empathizing with their plight is just as important as any material and financial assistance. Perhaps more so, because when the shock wears away a malaise can set in if people believe that their circumstances will not change even if the financial help is there. This is how some Katrina survivors fell into a long term cycle of dependency because they saw no hope for a brighter day.
The wake of devastation tends to push many churches and volunteers towards an even more authentic ministry. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) video below says it all: “Speak from your heart. People don’t need platitudes or everything is going to be alright. They need honesty.”
Methodism’s founder was John Wesley and the denomination exploded out of the 18th century English revival and primarily in this country through circut riders who went anywhere and everywhere where souls were present. After his evangelical conversion in 1738, Wesley was banned from preaching in many English churches and many of the country’s religious leaders tried to stop him from preaching outside as well, charging him with trespassing on their parishes. His famous retort: “I look upon the whole world as my parish.” It is said that John Wesley traveled over 250,000 miles in his life to preach the gospel. Most of that was on horseback. The circumference of the earth at the equator is 24,901 miles.
Methodism’s credibility shined because it was a church that rolled up its sleeves and reached out to the middle and lower classes. The marginalized and ‘least of these’ were reminded that their worth was infinite in Christ. George Whitefield, another 18th century Methodist revivalist, recorded just one illustration in his journal as an example when he preached to the rough and materially poor miners in Kingswood, England. Whitefield wrote in his journal : “Miners, just up from the mines, listened and the tears flowed making white gutters down their coal-black faces.” One coal miner told Whitefield, “We never knew anybody loved us.”
One thing I tried to highlight a little in my piece is that even now church agencies and ministries are still involved in the rebuilding and restoration after Hurricane Katrina. Next month will be the sixth anniversary of the hurricane. Long after cameras and the media sensation rolled in and out work is being done to transform lives and hearts. The Mennonite Disaster Service has been especially faithful when it comes to meeting the long term needs of disaster victims. They are living out these words by David Livingstone, the 19th century Scottish missionary to Africa, who asked, “If a commission by an earthly king is considered a honor, how can a commission by a Heavenly King be considered a sacrifice?”