By Kathy Ault
Ever since I first heard the call for chaplains to serve on the American Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care response teams, I have wanted to go to whatever location was overwhelmed with suffering and shock. With each tornado or major disaster, I would be struck with the desire to serve but lacked the necessary orientation and training.
Finally, after years of anticipation, I was able to attend the American Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care pre-conference workshop on March 5. Part one, Introduction to Disaster Spiritual Care, was designed for people like me who were new to the topic, and part two, Ethical Dilemmas in Disasters and Mock Deployment Exercises, included interactive table-top exercises for new and experienced DSC responders. The courses were team taught by Tim Serban of Oregon and Rabbi Stephen Roberts of New York, who have both been deployed multiple times. Linda Walsh-Garrison of Utah, a leader in the Southern division of the Red Cross, also joined in the teaching of the afternoon session.
The main takeaways that I learned are: 1) Flexibility is key. 2) Certified chaplains are well-suited to be disaster spiritual care responders, especially in regard to Red Cross guiding principles of impartiality and neutrality. 3) The first step in becoming a responder is to register as a general Red Cross volunteer in your local chapter.
Flexibility is key. If you remember, a major snowstorm was forecast for Thursday, the day of the training and the day before the NACC conference started. Several people had issues with canceled flights or missed the training altogether. The leaders teased that it was a good test of flexibility, and noted that how we responded to the situation might indicate if we were well-suited for providing disaster spiritual care. Times of disaster are times of chaos, and each situation requires flexibility. If a person can respond to a particular disaster, he or she needs to be able to fly in as little as four hours, and deployment requires a two-week commitment. Flexibility is needed to arrange your life responsibilities so you can be gone, to wait for the details of when and how you will travel, and to adjust to the realities when you arrive. Tim Serban noted that being a chaplain in an emergency department is possibly the best preparation for working with the Red Cross teams.
Certified chaplains are well-suited to be disaster spiritual care responders. The Red Cross makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class, or political opinions in its efforts to relieve suffering. The Red Cross also is careful to not take sides in hostilities or engage in controversies. These two values are inherent aspects of professional chaplaincy. Chaplains, though rooted in a particular faith denomination, respond openly and respectfully to people of varied backgrounds without discrimination. Chaplains also must be careful not to take sides in patient, family, or staff situations and generally are other-focused rather than self-disclosing. As Tim Serban said, “Chaplains are well suited because we get it.”
The first step is to register in your local chapter. Each volunteer gets an identification number that is needed if called to serve on a Disaster Spiritual Care team. Red Cross needs DSC chaplains for major disaster areas in the current “fly team” model, and also to be available locally as local disasters and needs present. If you sign up with your local chapter, you likely will be offered multiple opportunities to serve in different roles, but you do not have to commit to volunteer hours beyond your availability to be a disaster spiritual care responder. I am proud to report I am now a registered Red Cross volunteer for Baltimore City. Whether I ever serve on a Disaster Spiritual Care team remains unknown, but I have taken the first step!
Kathryn Ault, BCC, is director of pastoral care at Mercy Hospital in Baltimore.