A Disaster in Our Back Yard: Lessons Learned

What One Church Has Learned from Disaster Relief

Rev. Brian Coats serves as Senior Pastor of Central Christian Church, Waco, TX.  Central has offered significant support for recovery efforts following the devastating April 17, 2013 factory explosion in West, TX.  Week of Compassion has partnered with Central in its response and is currently working to support long-term recovery in West. Brian offers the following reflections on congregational disaster response:

In 2005, I served a church 334 miles from New Orleans, Louisiana. We spent four months that year doing Katrina relief ministry. So when the West Fertilizer Company plant exploded in West, Texas, 21 miles from the church I now serve, I knew things were about to get interesting, and we would need to be involved in the relief and recovery.

WHEN LIFE EXPLODES

I first heard about the explosion from a tweet, around 8:45 pm. As I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, my wife’s cell phone rang. It was her grandmother, asking if we were close to West, Texas. For the next two hours, between social media and television news, I began to get an idea that something bad had happened. Our associate pastor, Kristin Jack, and I began texting back and forth.

Around 11 pm, I made a trip to a local grocery store because the news was reporting that emergency shelters were springing up all over the Waco area. The next day, some church members came up and we made sack lunches for about 70 and then delivered them to one of the shelters. That same day, we sent an e-mail to our Area office, letting other Disciples churches know we would be collecting donations for West. We also put a notice on our marquee that said “blankets and toiletries for West.” Less than 24 hours later, we had half a classroom full of diapers, dry goods, toiletries, blankets and pillows. Two days after that - following at least three full-trailer deliveries from other Disciple churches - our storehouse was literally overflowing.

The weekend after the blast, our youth minister Trent Futral and I drove up to West to drop off a few of the supplies. I connected with a West resident who worked in their schools. Three of the four schools in the town of about 2500 were damaged, so almost all of the students were being displaced. I signed us up to prepare 14 “goodie bags” to greet the West ISD teachers at their new school, along with 94 bags for students. A few hours later, that number had ballooned to 500. As I knew we had an able project director in Kristin, I said yes without hesitation!

By Sunday morning, we were making 700 student goodie bags and 50 teacher goodie bags. Kristin did an incredible job mobilizing what seemed like the entire church to stuff these bags with donated school supplies, novelties, snacks and water, gift cards for the teachers and notes that said, “You are loved.” After worship, around 30 adults and children delivered the goodie bags to the campus that West students were moving to because the walls and windows of their former campuses were blown to pieces.

And again - that was just the first week. Since that initial week, through the Waco Disaster Relief Network, we have sponsored four families that lost their homes in the explosion, plugged into the long-term recovery effort, began meeting regularly to evaluate our aid and relief efforts, and met with representatives from Week of Compassion and Disciples Volunteering.

STRATEGIC AND EFFECTIVE HELP

As I told the congregation the Sunday after the tragedy, our prayer would be that we would help in ways that were strategic, effective and long-lasting. Nevertheless, as the narrative of those first few days (an abbreviated narrative, believe it or not!) after the blast illustrate, even “action-packed” stops short of being a complete and adequate description of life at this church since April 17. When it comes to West relief and recovery, we have been running downhill, praying God would use us and channel our resources to those in need.

As I said at the beginning, I really felt proximity would be important. I think that has been true - we are one of the closest Disciple churches to what remains of the plant. Key leaders and staff have commented often that we felt thrust into this in-the-trenches relief work without much of a manual. Now, looking back on the last three months, I think we have learned a few things.

First, we witnessed first-hand how supply collections can be problematic. In addition to the blankets and toiletries for West we had solicited, people also donated used clothing and toys—things for which we had neither immediate need nor a means for distributing. Instead, we held a garage sale during our busy first week of responding. Everything was priced at $1, and we made about $1800 for supporting recovery efforts.

Everyone who dropped off items was well-intended and thoughtful. But the sheer volume was overwhelming. Just days after the disaster, media outlets throughout this part of the world were quoting West officials saying, “No more supplies!” We wanted to serve as a donation drop-off point and a hub for churches throughout the Southwest Region - and we did - but getting those supplies to the right people and the right organizations became a full-time job for our Outreach Chair, who already had a full-time job! Maybe this is why I resonate with Week of Compassion’s “Pray-Pay-Stay” message. Those really are the best things you can often do after a disaster.

I really believe praying, paying and staying are three appropriate and faithful responses, but ironically as a pastor I am always looking for ways to increase participatory service and ministry. If something happens near your church, you may feel similarly. If our experience offers any learning, I would say be creative. Watching children, youth and adults from three to 93 fill up goodie bags and watching dozens of church members organize a garage sale in less than five days was inspiring and uplifting. It is possible to mobilize your people for relief work - relief work that truly is value-added - but you will need to be creative and be open to a crash-course in best practices from your local VOAD, Long Term Recovery Committee, and partners like Week of Compassion, Disciples Volunteering, and Church World Service.

Finally, I have heard this so many times, but now I think I get it. You really do need to be ready and you really do need to be prepared for a disaster BEFORE a disaster occurs. We have made some wise decisions since the blast, and we have made some not-so-wise decisions since the blast, but all of those decisions have been in the crucible and crunch of a sad, sad event - the loss of life and having one’s entire world blown up. Thinking through processes and procedures without so much pressure is important and necessary.

THANKFUL

I am grateful for the faithful, compassionate response of this church to the West explosion. I am also grateful for Week of Compassion and for Disciples Volunteering. In some ways we have taken a short turn as “boots on the ground” following a disaster, but these two ministries are truly the boots on the ground all of the time. Praying for their work and supporting their ministry is a fantastic response, before, during and after the ground shakes.

This week’s responses:
Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance

Central Africa Republic, Support and Protection to War Affected Communities
Mali, Support to Conflict Affected
Uganda, Refugee Assistance
Namibia, Drought Assistance
Angola, Drought Assistance
Palestine, Continuous Support for Gaza and West Bank
Myanmar, IDP Assistance
Pakistan, Support to Conflict Affected
China, Earthquake Relief
Missouri, Flood Damage
Tennessee, Flood Damage
Georgia, Flood Damage
Kansas, Flood Damage (2)
Missouri, Fire Damage