September 07 2017
Hurricane Harvey: How You Can Help Without Hurting
by Brian Fikkert
Six years ago, tornadoes ripped through the Southeast, including my neighborhood. Homes were destroyed in a matter of seconds, and one part of the community was without water for weeks. The church and the Christian community were rapidly deployed to help those in need. As we witness the destruction that Hurricane Harvey has brought to Texas and Louisiana, Christians should help without hesitating.
During such a time of crisis, immediate relief is the appropriate response. When a hurricane strikes a population center, people will be helpless and many times in danger. There is a need to halt the free-fall. Relief is the urgent and temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering from a natural or man-made crisis. Relief is the appropriate response when the receiver is largely incapable of helping himself.
We are all familiar with the Good Samaritan. Although this was not the point of the parable, his act of bandaging the bleeding victim on the roadside is an excellent example of relief applied appropriately. He literally helped to “stop the bleeding.” Moreover, he provided temporary shelter. The primary concern is to provide basic humanitarian assistance. While relief isn’t always the appropriate response to all people in need, it is when disaster strikes.
The Bible says our response to people in crisis is directly connected to our appreciation of the gospel itself. According to 1 John 3:17-18, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” Love moves us toward people in need. Truly, if we despise the helpless, we do not understand the gospel.
How Can We Truly Help?
Most of us are not in a position to provide frontline relief to the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Indeed, we might just get in the way of trained workers. However, it is entirely appropriate to give money to relief organizations such as the Red Cross or World Vision, which have the proper expertise to truly help. In most cases, donating money is preferable to donating goods and supplies, as these organizations know what is truly really needed.
There are two key qualities of relief that should be noted here. First, relief is immediate. People cannot wait weeks while churches try to think of what they should do and how they can secure funding. A timely response is crucial, and that requires planning before a crisis strikes. Disaster preparedness is essential. Second, relief is temporary. It should only be provided during the time that people cannot participate in their own recovery.
Once the crisis has passed, rehabilitation becomes the appropriate response; we should move from doing things for people and towards working with people, working together to restore them to their pre-crisis conditions. Why is this so important? The goal of all poverty alleviation is to help people to live in right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. A key feature of this is for people to be stewards of their own resources, gifts, and communities. When outsiders do all of the work for local people rather than with them, it undermines the disaster victims’ opportunity to use their own gifts and abilities and to pull together as a community. The point is not that we should refrain from helping the hurricane victims over the long haul. Long-term assistance will definitely be necessary. Rather, the point is that the way that we provide such long-term assistance matters. It is crucial that we bring in outside resources in ways that complement—rather than undermine—the hurricane victims’ use of their own gifts, abilities, and resources.
This is particularly true in contexts in which the recipients of the relief were impoverished before the hurricane hit. Many low-income people suffer from a marred identity—-a sense of inadequacy or inferiority—-making them feel as though they cannot affect change in their lives. For such people, a devastating natural disaster only confirms those feelings. And then when outsiders take over the entire process of rebuilding the community, these feelings are enhanced even further.
Done correctly, the process of rehabilitation can be restorative of more than just damaged buildings and property. Indeed, asking low-income individuals and communities to contribute to their own recovery can enable them to overcome their marred identity, helping them to recognize that they have God-given knowledge, abilities, and gifts to steward. Moreover, when local people work together, it can build relationships and partnerships that can result in positive change that continues long after the physical infrastructure is restored. The foundation of a community isn’t bricks and mortar, it’s people. And people are wired for relationship. Done right, rehabilitation can foster deeper relationships than ever before, building a solid foundation for decades to come.
Here are some practical tips to guide the rehabilitation process:
- Ask local individuals, communities, and organizations for their ideas about the best way to rebuild, and truly honor their answers
- Ask locals what gifts, resources, and abilities they can contribute to the rebuilding process
- As much as possible, employ local people and construction companies for the rebuilding effort, paying them for their work
- Do not repeatedly do things that local people and organizations can do themselves
- Only bring in outside resources when they complement rather than substitute for local resources
- Do things with people not for people
Relief is difficult, but rehabilitation is even harder, requiring far more discernment and patience. May God give us the wisdom to engage in more effective relief and rehabilitation so that we can truly help the victims of Hurricane Harvey without hurting.
Photo by Lt. Zachary West, Texas National Guard.