The theology behind disaster relief, recovery

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“Churches Shelve Theology for Disaster Relief Efforts” ran the headline of a Tennessee newspaper reporting on a devastating 2010 flood. The article focused on how churches with different ways of thinking were working together in response to the urgent needs of flood victims.

Yet the headline also suggested that theology was absent from this disaster response. In reality, the opposite is true. As United Methodists and as Christians, we do not “put our theology on the shelf” to respond to disasters. We put our theology to work!

Identifying with and assisting individuals and communities affected by disasters are ways we follow Jesus Christ — whether those disasters are naturally or humanly generated. The mission theology statement of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries makes this point clear: In God’s mission, “Jesus poured himself out in servanthood for all humanity” and “the church experiences and engages in God’s mission as it pours itself out for others.”

This understanding of God’s mission highlights the spirit of disaster relief response necessary for post-disaster restoration. For that reason, the United Methodist Committee on Relief is a natural part of our denomination’s mission agency. We follow and find Christ in disaster situations.

“God’s light shines in every corner of the earth,” proclaims Global Ministries’ mission theology statement. “There are no places where God’s grace has not always been present.”

Many United Methodists take part in UMCOR’s disaster relief ministries through offerings made during UMCOR’s One Great Hour of Sharing or by contributing funds through emergency channels of The Advance. A small yet significant number of church members volunteer for cleanup and rebuilding after hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, or sometimes even armed combat. Whatever form it takes, Christian humanitarian relief is a deep affirmation of theological conviction.

Biblical roots

Concern for those in distress after a calamity is rooted in both the Old and New testaments. As Rabbi Myrna Matsa observes: “The people of God accept in perpetuity the message of Leviticus 19:2: ‘You shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy’ and holiness means to nurture the earth, care for humanity, and leave the world in a better condition than the way we found it.” (Jewish Theology of Disaster Response and Recovery)

Jesus was steeped in the Jewish tradition of holiness and instructed in the care of humanity. Matthew 25 spells out the obligation Jesus’ followers have for those who are hungry, thirsty, sick, unclothed, or in prison. In the Great Commandment, Jesus tells us to love and care for our neighbors as we care for ourselves — an admonition also from the Old Testament — and in Galatians 5:14, the Apostle Paul uses “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” to sum up the whole of religious law.

Acts 11 tells the story of what may have been the first Christian collection for disaster survivors. When the church in Antioch learned that fellow believers in Judea faced famine, “the disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea” (Acts 11:29). In the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, Jesus broadens the definition of a “neighbor,” cutting across ethnic and religious boundaries for the sake of human service and dignity.

Our Wesleyan heritage

Our Methodist heritage, stemming from John Wesley’s ministry in 18th century England, includes a strong concern for people in jeopardy because of human-caused or natural calamities. Wesley saw some of the results of rapid industrialization as disastrous. He railed against factories’ pollution of the air, water, and soil, and he started small enterprise programs to rescue at least some women and children from the mills.

Wesley’s ministry extended to those sick from all causes, including industrial contamination. Medicine was not highly developed in his time. Germs and microbes had not been identified, and existing health services were largely limited to the wealthy. Despite the many demands on his time, Wesley compiled the best available medical information, including home remedies, in a book titled Primitive Physick. Every Methodist preacher making rounds on horseback in England was expected to carry this handbook in his saddlebag. The book became the best-selling practical manual of 18th century England.

This powerful Wesleyan tradition of concern for the vulnerable was at work in 1940, at the onset of World War II, when U.S. Methodists first set up what is today UMCOR. Its founding was triggered in part by memories of the horrendous effects of World War I on civilian populations. Bishop Herbert Welch conceived the idea as a loving response to a world of violence. God’s grace equips us for this obligation. Our mission theology teaches that “We acknowledge the grace of God placed in our hearts and at work in the world before any action on our part.”

Humility and confidence

Another Wesleyan theological theme addresses the attitude of the responders in disaster relief and subsequent rehabilitation. John Wesley built into Methodism the conviction that all people need the grace of God to be redeemed. This has special application for church members who set out to do “good works.” It is a reminder that the helpers — the funders and the cleanup teams — are not superior in divine favor to those being assisted. To follow Jesus in servanthood to others is to be baptized in humility. We seek to be both confident and modest, asking not how our action makes us look, but how putting our faith into action contributes to human welfare, peace, justice and reconciliation.

As the embodiment of United Methodist disaster response, UMCOR offers services and presence without regard to religion, race, nationality, politics, or gender. It responds to small as well as large, well-publicized disasters. John Wesley admonished Methodists to do as much good and as little harm as possible in the world. Those are guiding precepts in our response to disaster.

An expression of faith

The church’s disaster response is an expression of our faith, a confirmation of our discipleship, and a witness to our love for our neighbors. As United Methodists, we do not distribute food, water, blankets, cleaning buckets, and health kits or rebuild shelters and schools with the objective of converting others either to Christianity or to Methodism. Such a goal would miss the point of God’s grace, which is offered in freedom. To us, disasters are opportunities for service, inviting us to our highest levels of compassion and concern. The theology of presence requires few words.

We also take a broad view of partnerships in disaster relief and rebuilding. In the continuing response to the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, UMCOR works with Methodist or ecumenical partners not only from the Caribbean and Latin America but also from Canada and the United Kingdom. We also cooperate with nonprofit agencies not affiliated with the church. In the aftermath of the devastating 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, we worked with other Christian, secular and Muslim organizations.

UMCOR has long-term plans for response to the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan That disaster damaged a nuclear power plant, adding radiation pollution to the damage from quakes and floods. UMCOR’s response entails collaboration with Japanese Christians, putting particular emphasis on work with economically marginalized ethnic communities and on issues such as agricultural production where nuclear contamination exists.

Preserving and restoring

Working with others, including other religious groups and government entities, serves a theological objective: to recognize the fullness — the wholeness — of God's created order and to collaborate with others in the restoration and preservation of all creation, including human families and communities. The focus is often on “the least of these” from Matthew 25, because the weakest are hardest hit by natural and human-caused disasters. The poor and elderly characteristically have the least substantial housing and are the most vulnerable regarding immediate post-disaster needs and long-term rehabilitation. Methodists have always been strongly committed to ministry with the poor.

Restoration of housing, social institutions, and the means of making a living are long-term post-disaster tasks. UMCOR is well known as an agency that arrives early and stays the longest through disaster recovery. Our work in response to the prolonged war in Bosnia lasted for years after hostilities ceased, covering a full decade and involving the restoration of farms. Work in Armenia and Georgia now has extended for two decades. Job training and the rebuilding of homes, schools, and other infrastructure in Haiti is ongoing, carried out in close collaboration with local communities and the Haitian Methodist Church (Eglise Methodiste d’Haiti). One objective is to provide job training of value to individuals and families in the years ahead.

UMCOR is especially skilled in post-disaster case management, a process that helps people get back on their feet economically and socially. Sometimes a new start can take place in the area affected by the disaster, but sometimes people have to start over in a new place. UMCOR received major public contracts in case management after Hurricane Katrina, which devastated large areas of the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005. Much of the response was in collaboration with mission volunteer teams,as is always the case after disasters in the United States.

Every annual conference in the United States has trained disaster-response teams. Equipping such teams is a matter of both practical and theological necessity. As in the parable of the wedding guests in Matthew 25:1-13 — in which the bridesmaids need to carry extra oil for the lamps used to welcome the wedding party — we must be ready when God invites us to respond to human need. The message is to “be alert,” and that requires training in disaster response.


The United Methodist Committee on Relief is a separately incorporated humanitarian unit of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. It has its own board of directors, elected by directors of the parent agency, and incorporates international and domestic disaster relief, health ministries, and development programs.

Places of worship

A question that often arises is whether UMCOR engages in the replacement or repair of churches destroyed or damaged in disasters — an issue with both theological and humanitarian implications. For many years, the question existed without direct response. It was put on the agenda of the UMCOR directors in 2008. The next year, a policy was adopted providing that up to 10 percent of the emergency funds raised for any particular U.S. relief effort could be used for church repair and related needs.

In 2010, the UMCOR board further stipulated that up to 10 percent of funds raised for international disaster relief might be used for “repair of places of worship and related needs.” This decision equalized domestic and international policy. In keeping with the nonsectarian nature of UMCOR, it takes account of the reality that community restoration may include restoration of a place of worship of some other faith. Requests for domestic or international grants for work on places of worship are made independently of requests for money for humanitarian aid, but they follow the same process of accountability and careful review.

God at work through us

God is at work everywhere, all the time. So in God’s mission, we seek to serve others in humility and confidence. We know that everyone needs — and has access to — God’s grace. In disaster response, we know there is no perfect humanitarian solution. We simply do our best, praying for the Holy Spirit’s guidance as we put our theology to work in action — doing as much good as we can.

*Kemper is the top executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. This story originally appeared in the March-April 2013 New World Outlook magazine, produced by the Board of Global Ministries.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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