During the autumn of 2017, many hearts were heavy as the news of hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma was broadcast around the world. High winds and heavy rain caused extensive damage and forced thousands of people to leave their homes. Many of those people are still displaced and face ongoing physical needs. They are also greatly in need of experiencing God’s love.
Since 1962, World Renew has been training and sending volunteers to respond in times of crisis. They have learned many things about what it means to serve as God’s hands and feet to disaster survivors.
Meeting Physical Needs
Tearing out flooring and drywall and removing waterlogged cabinets and furniture are some of the first steps residents like Sheila need to take in order to be able to move back home. Sheila lives in Port Arthur, Texas, and was one of thousands of residents whose homes were flooded by Hurricane Harvey.
The night Hurricane Harvey made landfall, water rushed through Sheila’s back door like a river and poured nearly four feet of water into her home. After the storm had passed and the water was gone, Sheila and others like her were left to fix their damaged homes. Beds and furniture were ruined, appliances stopped working, and walls started to grow mold.
World Renew Disaster Response Services (DRS) volunteers are trained to respond to needs like these across North America. Through careful door-to-door “early assessments,” volunteers canvas disaster-stricken communities to determine needs and to connect survivors with services.
Next, volunteers work alongside survivors in what is called “rapid response.” This includes sorting through belongings, discarding items that have been ruined, and tearing out waterlogged floors and walls.
“First we have to get everything out of the house,” said Lois Hecksel, a World Renew DRS volunteer who recently spent two weeks assisting in this type of work. “Then we can start tearing out the damaged floors and walls. We are taking it one house at a time. In each home, we are respectful of the homeowner’s belongings, recognizing that this is a very difficult situation.”
It is a daunting physical and emotional task, but one that is appreciated by those who have survived the storm. And it is just the tip of the iceberg.
At the time of this writing, World Renew’s DRS volunteers have not yet begun to respond to other physical needs, but there will be many. Following early assessments and rapid response, World Renew volunteers are often involved in conducting an “unmet needs assessment” or community survey to identify those with unmet needs several months after the disaster. They also do home repair and reconstruction. It is a process that takes time.
In fact, World Renew volunteers will likely be responding in Port Arthur for the next few years to help survivors like Sheila repair and rebuild their homes and lives.
Dealing with Trauma
The response doesn’t end with repairing and rebuilding homes. Survivors often have more than physical needs. They also have emotional and spiritual scars from the trauma they experienced. Sheila, for example, can still picture the night of the storm in vivid detail.
She will tell you the story of how she and her daughter managed to get out of their home and wade through chest-deep water to get into their boat.
A city bus, making its way down their street, created a large wave. The wave pushed Sheila’s boat over and her daughter was pulled underwater. It was terrifying. Acting by sheer instinct, Sheila grabbed her daughter and pulled her back up to the surface.
The horror was not over. According to Sheila, she and about 30 of their neighbors made their way onto a city bus in hopes of finding shelter. As they tried to drive forward, the bus would not move. Everyone had to get off and walk in the rain through the cold water until they got to drier ground.
Days later, when they were able to return home, Sheila and her daughter found most of their possessions in ruins. It was a sight that will stay in her memory forever and one that she needs to heal from.
“Disaster survivors have experienced intense trauma and need to repair their lives emotionally and spiritually in addition to physical recovery,” explained Bob Laarman, director of World Renew DRS. "Listening to the their personal stories is often an important part of the recovery process," he said. "As they serve at disaster sites to meet physical needs, volunteers are often asked why they would do this work. This gives them a clear opening to share their faith testimony. Many times, they are able to pray with a survivor and provide spiritual comfort in that way.”
When World Renew completes work on a home, they also conduct a special “last nail” ceremony where they sing and pray with a homeowner before the last nail is driven into the wall.
To help extend emotional and spiritual support into the future after volunteers have left, World Renew DRS often tries to partner with local churches and community organizations. In Port Arthur, for example, World Renew is working alongside Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church. In this way, bridges are built between local churches and their communities.
Extending God’s Love Across Borders
These same lessons are applied when World Renew responds outside of North America. Since its founding in 1962, World Renew has extended the reach of the Christian Reformed Church by enabling congregations to work together to respond to global crises.
As in North America, this response involves responding to physical needs, meeting emotional and spiritual needs, and partnering with local people for long-term impact.
Consider the recent situation of Rohingya refugees. The Rohingya are a minority Muslim population who have lived for hundreds of years in the Buddhist nation of Myanmar. Despite their long tenure in this country, they have been routinely denied citizenship. Recently things have become even worse.
Mass killings, torching of villages, and other violent acts against Rohingya families have caused over 600,000 people to flee for their lives. They have crossed the border into Bangladesh and are living in temporary camps in shelters made from tarps, plastic, and bamboo.
Nuru Islam’s family is one of these. Islam is a small shop owner who escaped the violence in Myanmar with his family.
“Soldiers came to our village shouting and shooting their guns and setting our houses on fire. They were killing us!” said Islam.
He was terrified, so he took his family and fled into the jungle. Their journey to Bangladesh took six days, but thankfully Islam’s entire family of 25 people arrived safely.
Islam, his wife, and their two young sons now live in a refugee camp where conditions are very poor. Islam’s father, 10 brothers, and their families also live nearby. Essentials such as food, water, and shelter are limited, and poor sanitation has caused concern about the spread of disease. Multiple shelters share latrines, and in some cases a single water pump is shared by nearly 200 families.
World Renew is responding.
“Jesus called us to cross to the other side of the road and help those in need, regardless of who they are and where they come from. As the crisis persists, World Renew is partnering with a local Christian organization to provide vulnerable families displaced from their homes with food,” explained Carol Bremer-Bennett, director of World Renew, U.S.
This includes meeting the physical need for food, water, and shelter. Through its partnership in the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, World Renew is providing food to 3,000 Rohingya families. This nutrient-rich food is essential for those who have so little.
The response won’t end there, however. When World Renew responds to international disasters it coordinates its efforts with other nonprofit organizations, local churches, and locally hired people to ensure that physical, emotional, and spiritual needs are met for the short and long-term. This response includes providing emergency food and shelter, but it might also include trauma counselling, equipping churches to respond to needs, rebuilding of infrastructure, or training people in new business skills.
“During a time of great turmoil, World Renew is there so that God’s love will be felt as families receive assistance,” said Bremer-Bennett. “God graciously teaches each of us about love as we experience, day-to-day, his love through Christ. He expects us to extend that love to our neighbors. Through World Renew, the Christian Reformed Church is expressing that love by pursuing justice and serving those who are in need. Through unconditional, undiscriminating, and life-sustaining love, those that World Renew serves can see Christ and draw near to him even in the midst of crises.”