BOB LAARMAN is director of disaster response services for World Renew, the disaster response and community development arm of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
Faith Today: Your department focuses on disaster response in North America. What are the typical scenarios you are responding to?
Bob Laarman: A lot of it is hurricanes, and those are typically in the southern U.S. – Florida, Georgia and Texas. There is some fire response, both in British Columbia and California. It is often flooding response in Ontario and in other places. So hurricanes, floods and fires are the typical things we respond to.
FT: How long are you normally in these communities?
BL: Our response usually kicks in three months to a year after the flooding occurs. We are part of a national network of disaster response organizations. There is a lot of co-ordination between them. Some focus on the early response like the Red Cross and The Salvation Army. After the first responders are there, setting up shelters and food, there are some other organizations primarily in the muck-out stage, and we do a little bit of that.
We come and do two primary things. One is needs assessments. We do volunteer groups that either go door to door or set up drop-in centres and work with local organizations to see what their needs are. Often, we are listening. People need another chance to tell their stories.
We note what their unmet needs are, then we are often invited back to work on those unmet needs. It might be home rebuilding projects that last one to three years. We are there long after the cameras leave. We are there helping people rebuild their homes.
FT: Tell us more about that listening part, which seems so important.
BL: Often disaster survivors and their neighbours are in the exact same situation, so they don’t necessarily want to hear or have a chance to share their story because their neighbour has the same thing happening. When caring Christian people show up ready to help, and prove they are ready to help, and actually care to hear their stories and listen and sympathize, and then offer to pray if the people desire that, it is very powerful. We get a lot of feedback forms saying how impactful that was for people. Our people always ask if it’s okay to pray. They don’t force their prayers on people.
People often say yes, even if they’re not prayerful people. I talked to a volunteer last week who said he was with a man who said he didn’t want prayer, but the man’s girlfriend said she did, and that man bowed his head and joined in. Christian volunteers can add to the formal things, we do the work, but to do it in a way that shows Christ’s compassion for the people who are struggling. It is a very important part of what we do as church people responding.
FT: When a local church is in the community hit by a disaster, what advice do you have for them?
BL: I think local congregations probably make fewer mistakes than outside people trying to help because they are there and know the situation. The big thing they can do is open their doors for those who need shelter, provide food and stay connected to the organizations that are there.
Churches are set up for hospitality and can do that, even if it’s inconvenient. To do it in co-operation with local authorities is a great thing. And have people there to listen to the stories. The problems most often happen when people from afar decide how they want to help and what they want to send. There is always a flood of well-intentioned donations people send that take up space, which is outside people deciding what they like to give, instead of listening.
One particular church, a very good one in Williams Lake, B.C., after the fires decided they wanted to help their community with spiritual and emotional care. That is something churches are well equipped to do. We were able to help them with training in trauma healing. They invited other churches to take part in the healing, and they became trauma healers for their community long-term. That is a great advantage churches have – they stay there. They are rooted in the community long-term. Our response is not a permanent one, but churches are.
Churches are there long-term, and when they connect with their community long-term in providing spiritual and emotional care, and trauma healing, that can be a significant contribution the local church can make. There was another church in Texas where many of its members suffered loss, even though the church was dry. They talked to the community and found out what people needed, so this Texas church worked with a Michigan church who raised funds and donated appliances. The Michigan church sent a truckload of appliances which the Texas church distributed. I liked that they didn’t do it in a scattered way. They chose one area to have an impact. They become known as a caring group of people who were there.
FT: So working with another church sounds like a really good idea.
BL: That really is a good thing. If the local church is in a disaster area, some of your members might be affected, so they can reach out to another church and work together. Another thing churches can do is house volunteers, perhaps feed them. The local church can provide a contribution not everyone can.
FT: Is there practical advice you would give to a congregation to prepare now, before disaster strikes?
BL: There are a lot of disaster preparedness training churches could do. It’s just really hard when people are [too] busy to take the training and do the preparedness for when a disaster might happen someday. It is a great idea and it can really help, but it’s really hard to make much progress with churches in communities who haven’t had recent disasters.
FT: We don’t think it’s going to happen to us.
BL: Exactly. What happens, both fortunately and unfortunately, is the areas prone to disasters who have them on a semiregular basis are the most prepared and do the best job. They are more prepared, but it’s because they have a lot of disasters.
FT: Tell us more about the role of volunteers for World Renew.
BL: We basically use volunteers for all the things we describe. One-third are Canadians, all from churches, all good Christian people serving with good hearts. We create some kind of housing in an unused church building or a school that’s not used, we send a group for one week, another for three, and so on. They worship with the church on Sunday morning and go to the Wednesday evening potlucks with the church. They invite the church people out to help and rebuild homes.
The churches might be a little skeptical at first. They don’t know us, they don’t know what we can do. We ask them to take a risk and work with us, and after some weeks it is an energizing activity, an energizing force for local churches when volunteers come and worship with them, and eat potlucks with them, and invite them to see parts of their communities they may not see or help people they may not usually help.
We hear pastors talk with gratitude and some energy and excitement about having these volunteers on their property. Their neighbours might show up and get involved, and ask, "Who are these people in these green shirts?" It can be a real revitalizing force for local churches when the volunteers are there long-term, serving with their grounds as a base for their service. It’s not a planned program impact, but it happens.
FT: So how can people volunteer?
BL: There are two ways. You can sign up as an individual or a couple and say you want to volunteer. We put you in groups for either needs assessment or rebuilding. Or you can sign up as a church group and say you have a leader and a group, and say you want to volunteer together and we take your group.
We have leaders on site to help facilitate the process. People have a good heart and they want to serve. They see the problems on the news and they want to respond.
FT: You are a binational organization. Does that make things more complicated?
BL: It’s rooted in our denominational base. We’re rooted in the Christian Reformed Church. It’s historically founded by Dutch immigrants, and they settled both in the U.S. and Canada. That Dutch immigrant tie was stronger than the national ties at the time, so the churches bound together as a denomination. The Church is one denomination across both countries, so our response organization has followed the church’s model.
It’s more complex, but I think it’s worth it.
FT: Bob, any last thoughts or advice for churches who want to help their communities in times of crisis or disaster?
BL: I just think churches, nonprofit organizations in general, used to automatically have goodwill and good understanding, and be respected because of who they are in their communities. I think we are losing that. There is suspicion when our volunteers first go out. But when Christian people go out and serve, and serve well, and do what they say they are going to do, it creates so much respect for the Church and for Christians. I want to encourage people to continue to get outside their church and serve. It really makes a difference for the cause of Christ when people see us in action in that way.
FT: Thank you, Bob.