Two years ago, tornadoes ripped through the Southeast, including my neighborhood. Homes were destroyed in a matter of seconds, and one part of the community was without water for weeks. The church and the Christian community were rapidly deployed to help those in need. As Hurricane Sandy bears down on the northeastern United States, the Christian community should help without hesitating.
During such a time of crisis, immediate relief is the appropriate response. When a hurricane strikes a population center, people will be helpless and many times in danger. There is a need to halt the free-fall. Relief is the urgent and temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering from a natural or man-made crisis. Such a response is intended for moments when the receiver is largely incapable of helping himself.
We are all familiar with the Good Samaritan. Although this was not the point of the parable, his act of bandaging the bleeding victim on the roadside is an excellent example of relief applied appropriately. He literally helped to "stop the bleeding." Moreover, he provided temporary shelter. The primary concern is to provide basic humanitarian assistance. While relief isn't always the appropriate response to all people in need, it is when disaster strikes.
The Bible says our response to people in crisis is directly connected to our appreciation of the gospel itself. According to 1 John 3:17-18, "If anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth." Love moves us toward people in need. Truly, if we despise the helpless, we do not understand the gospel.
How Can We Help?
First, relief is immediate. A timely response is crucial. The victims cannot wait weeks while churches try to think of what they should do and how they can secure funding. Disaster preparedness is essential. What financial, material, and human resources does your church have at its disposal? Help can include opening your home for a few nights, providing transportation, cooking a meal, or working in a local food pantry to keep it organized. Check on your members and encourage them to check on their neighbors.
Second, relief is temporary. It should only be provided during the time that people cannot participate in their own recovery. Determining when to stop relief is never easy. We can make the mistake of ending our relief too early, but we can also err in creating unnecessary dependency by extending it too long. Once the crisis has passed, rehabilitation becomes the appropriate response; you must move from doing things for people and giving things to people towards working with people to restore pre-crisis conditions.
This is particularly true in contexts in which the recipients of the relief were suffering from a marred identity---a sense of inadequacy or inferiority---before the crisis hit. For example, a series of factors over the course of many centuries have combined to cripple the belief of many Haitians that they can affect change in their lives. This problem can be exacerbated if relief efforts are inappropriately prolonged. Once the bleeding has stopped and the Haitians can participate in their own recovery, it is essential---and loving---that they be encouraged to do so.
Third, relief requires partnership. The average church doesn't have the capacity to meet all the needs in the community around it. It is important for local churches to identify relief and development agencies in their communities that are equipped for crisis. A natural disaster also presents a wonderful opportunity for churches to partner as servants in their community.
Whether or not you live in an area affected by the storm, you can support relief efforts through humanitarian agencies like the Red Cross and Christian organizations like World Vision.
Natural disasters provide an opportunity for churches to serve their communities. Experts say relief is typically needed only for a week or less before you should transition into a rehabilitation development strategy, working with people to help them move forward rather than merely doing things for them. As you do this, look for opportunities to form relationships. As we walk with people over time, we can address the deeper issues of life and what it truly means to be a fully restored human.
If there is any group of people who have a heart for the helpless, it is those who worship and serve the King who takes pity on the helpless (Matthew 9:36). As you watch the news of Hurricane Sandy, don't hesitate to help.
Brian Fikkert is the founder and executive director of The Chalmers Center at Covenant College, where he also serves as a professor of economics and community development. He is the co-author with Steve Corbett of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself.