Scott E. Pearce
If it’s late summer in North America, the images and videos are hard to miss. As yet another hurricane shows up on the radar, it dominates cable and internet news. Slideshows with hundreds upon hundreds of photographs, interviews, and before-and-after satellite images all weave together a composite story of disaster, ruin, survival, and bravery.
Perhaps we have only experienced these disasters through the news cycle and have grown accustomed to the rhythm of forecast, evacuation, landfall, and disaster. Maybe our hearts have grown numb to the real heartache and pain that are inseparably linked to these personal stories that we receive from the impersonal news.
Or perhaps fleeing your home in advance of a natural disaster is already a part of life in your corner of the world. Perhaps you have boarded up windows while a hurricane swelled and swirled in the Atlantic, or taken shelter when tornado sirens warn of the cyclone threading toward your street. Perhaps you have woken to a red, smoky sunrise and wondered if wildfires will be raging across your county next. Maybe you are in earthquake country and live with regular tremors but fear “the big one.”
Imagine being among the homeowners and emergency response teams who are the first to return to the scene and witness “what God hath wrought” in their towns and neighborhoods. Imagine walking past houses shattered into toothpicks and trees fallen like Dagon before the ark of the covenant. Imagine wading—wading, not walking—across the cul-de-sac where, on Monday, your children played, but where now, on Friday, you’re collecting your belongings before they float away.
What role does the believer have in responding to the national news? Is there such a thing as a “Christian” response to natural disasters, and, if so, what does it look like?
If you are familiar with the work of the OPC’s Committee on Diaconal Ministries, then you know that over five hundred men and women from churches all over the United States have endeavored to live out a Christian response to six major disasters since 2011. The testimonies of their love, work, skill, and rebuilding efforts and their examples of Christian charity are continuing to inspire new waves of volunteers and response teams to meet current needs.
To listen to any of these volunteers describe their time serving on a disaster response team is to hear a person still brim-full with the impact of the trip, even years later.
Volunteer Ed Pearce still recalls vivid details from tsunami relief in Japan in 2012: seeing the devastation of the tidal wave’s impact, collecting children’s shoes and toys from rubble strewn across a hillside, hugs and tears with victims who had lost homes and businesses and family members.
Kevin Offringa and Cheryl Van Beek, two youth leaders who made trips to Houston in 2017–2018, described the enthusiasm of teenagers volunteering. Although many of them lacked skills or labor-oriented work experience, they yet gave themselves wholeheartedly to the work of cleaning up hurricane victims’ properties and painting damaged church buildings.
Mark Palmer, a deacon and semi-retired handyman, described his work on multiple teams in multiple states and countries with the humble, grateful acknowledgement that the Lord gave him the ability, the skills, the time, and the resources to be able to help.
But what makes these response teams from the OPC and our sister churches unique? What makes them “Christian” as compared to the efforts of FEMA, the National Guard, the Red Cross, and others? Is there a Reformed method of roof repair? Or a confessional response to catastrophe?
Every past or present volunteer with whom I have spoken states unequivocally that the goal of their efforts was to be first and foremost a tangible expression of the love of Jesus Christ.
How is that accomplished while engaged in roofing and painting? What explicit expressions of Christ’s love can be conveyed in carpentry and clean-up? Past volunteers testify to the underestimated power of several elements of the volunteer work—some spoken, some unspoken.
The first is simply and clearly conveyed just by showing up. It is hard to overstate the impact of a van full of strangers from a thousand miles away pulling into your debris-littered driveway just to rip out your flooded sheetrock. Why would they have come to your home? Of all the houses on the block, why was mine chosen?
OP disaster response provides resplendent examples of what it means for us to be part of a connectional church—connected across the country and across the world. As we sing in the hymn, we are “one in hope and doctrine” and “one in charity.” When we volunteer and travel any distance to meet the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ, it is an expression of that commitment.
The work to restore the homes of those of the household of faith reaps benefits greater and longer-lasting than the immediate relief and joy. By restoring believers’ homes, we enable them to open their new doors for hospitality and to be a haven for others suffering nearby. We propel them into opportunities to witness to their neighbors who want to know why strangers from far away worked without compensation on their roof for two weeks. The cup of cold water offered in the name of Christ is the essence of diaconal mercy ministry and is beloved and blessed by our Father.
Above all, mercy ministry glorifies the God of providence whose way “is in whirlwind and storm,” to whom clouds are, as it were, “the dust of his feet” (Nahum 1:3). We obey our compassionate Savior who tells his disciples to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
We praise God for the teams he has called and sent out to serve in word and deed in the wake of recent disasters. If you are interested in volunteering, please contact David Nakhla at David.Nakhla@opc.org. Volunteers are especially needed in North Carolina for Hurricane Florence relief.
May God continue to be glorified in the work of the Committee on Diaconal Ministries and may he raise up more laborers for this unique and ripe harvest field.
The author is a deacon and lifelong member at Church of the Covenant in Hackettstown, New Jersey. New Horizons, January 2019.