For every hurricane, earthquake or flood, there is help: food, bottled water, crews of volunteers nailing shingles to brand new roofs.
What even grateful recipients of that aid may not realize is that much of it comes from an unlikely hodgepodge of religious groups who put aside their doctrinal differences and coordinate their efforts as soon as the wind starts blowing.
Southern Baptists cook meals from Texas to Massachusetts. Seventh-day Adventists dispense aid from makeshift warehouses that can be running within eight hours.
Mennonites haul away debris, Buddhists provide financial aid and chaplains with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team counsel the traumatized and grieving.
“Think of us as the United Nations of disaster relief,” says Diana Rothe-Smith, executive director of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD), the main umbrella group for coordinating emergency response from private agencies.
Although “Vo-ad,” as it’s usually called, includes groups with no religious affiliation, the bulk of its 50 or so members are relief arms of churches and other faith-based organizations.
The organization, which formed in 1970, has grown from seven founding members. This spring it signed a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Emergency Management Agency that will help its members respond quicker to disasters.
“There’s a tendency when disasters happen to look at government, but there’s an inherent risk in taking a government-centric approach to disaster response,” says FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate.
The volunteer groups provide essential on-the-ground knowledge that government responders don’t have time to develop on their own, Fugate says.
Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, for instance, is famous for its ability to prepare tens of thousands of hot meals at disasters from Hurricane Ike to flooding in New England. The North Carolina Baptist Men have three food trailers that can serve a combined 75,000 meals a day.
“The Red Cross distributes the meals, but it’s Southern Baptists doing the cooking,” says Lin Honeycutt, a volunteer with the North Carolina group for more than 20 years.
The denomination apparently developed its affinity for mass meals after a hurricane hit Texas in the early 1960s. But the vast group – there are more than 10,000 Southern Baptist disaster volunteers in North Carolina alone – can do everything from dispensing supplies to cleaning out inches of mud in flooded basements.
Deciding who does what has been a delicate process of building confidence in the capacity of groups as different as Jews and Scientologists, says Bill Adams, director of Disaster Response Services for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee and a former NVOAD president.
“Just getting all those people at the same table is a miracle, when you think about it,” Adams says.
The groups’ specialties have developed gradually in the course of responding to specific disasters.
Adventists really began ramping up their warehousing expertise after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, according to Steve Stillwell, assistant to the Director for Adventist Community Services Disaster Response for the Carolina Conference.
“There were literally football fields 6-feet-deep of donated clothes and items that nobody could use, that ended up going to the landfill,” he says.
“Andrew was the biggest waste of resources. We directed our skills and training to the better utilization of donated resources, and we’ve been refining it ever since.”
Theology may not play a role in how the specialties develop, but it can present a thorny question for religious believers who don’t agree on much beyond the need to help victims of disasters.
Last month, a FEMA videographer was rebuked after telling volunteers not to wear church T-shirts in a video about tornado cleanup to avoid any religious message.
“There may be separation of church and state in government, but in a disaster we all work together,” Fugate says.
Nevertheless, religious volunteers are sensitive to accusations of proselytizing to vulnerable, desperate people.
After Haiti was devastated in January by an earthquake, Hollywood star John Travolta was criticized for bringing counselors from the Church of Scientology, to which he belongs, along with supplies to the island nation.
In a bid to address concerns, NVOAD’s membership last year ratified a set of 10 principles for spiritual care, including the admonition that “Disaster response will not be used to further a particular political or religious perspective or cause.”
“We feel we can be who we are and believe ultimately Christ is the answer, but to do it with respect has been our legacy,” says Jack Munday, director of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, which has more than 3,200 trained chaplains and crisis volunteers.