By David Lichter
Ten years ago, Rabbi Stephen Roberts and the Rev. Willard Ashley Sr. edited and published Disaster Spiritual Care: Practical Clergy Responses to Community, Regional and National Tragedy. One of our NACC members, Tim Serban, MA, BCC, who has been serving in disaster spiritual care for years and is currently American Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care national lead, contributed an article on “Attending to the Dead: Morgues, Body Identification, Accompanying and Blessing the Dead.”
Do you remember any of the natural disasters of 2008? I know — you will probably need to research that question as I did.
I did not remember that, at that time, 2008 ranked third in the most expensive disaster years on record, then add the hundreds of thousands of deaths. In China several tropical cyclones and an earthquake resulted in more than 220,000 dead and $200 billion in damages. In Myanmar, Cyclone Nargis killed an estimated 135,000 people. In the United States, Hurricane Ike struck Galveston, TX, causing $30 billion in damages; and Hurricane Gustav struck the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, wreaking $10 billion in damages. Also, 1,700 tornadoes ravaged several states.
I offer two observations on this topic and, in light of reviewing again, the content of the book. One is the obvious, but profound, disruptive nature of disasters. We reflect on the deepest truth of human nature and humanity, our vulnerability and fragility. We can live for a time with the illusion of being immune to the suffering and severe loss that can accompany disaster. However, our fragility hovers over us daily, prodding us to acknowledge and live with our vulnerability. We can try only to protect and prepare ourselves in every phase of our lives. Yet, we have from our Christian tradition a way of viewing life’s fragility as prolixitas mortis, as Gregory the Great called it, or the extended experience of death in life, the daily experience of and practice of what death will be — the ultimate experience of our vulnerability when we hand ourselves over to the mystery beyond this life. As baptized believers, we know that we live within the mystery of Christ’s suffering and death. We not only participate in it, but Christ participates in, accompanies and holds us in the midst of every form of disaster. So, in some respects, a profound part of our preparation for disaster is living daily in the mystery of our redeemed fragility and vulnerability — not trying to shield ourselves from loss, but recognizing that the One present today in our fragility will be there tomorrow in our loss.
Secondly, the book made me reflect upon the ripple effect of every disaster. As a nodal wave moves outward, so do the effects of disasters, and we cannot underestimate how far it might go. We can all probably surface personal stories where we were surprised by those who were secretly living with a loss because of their relationship to someone affected by a disaster miles or countries away. We can reflect on the sacredness of our common humanity as we realize how profoundly interconnected we are. While we fittingly raise funds for those immediately affected, as spiritual care providers, we also know the often hidden but inescapable bond that exists among us and sets off a communal compassion. In our midst is always someone more deeply affected by a disaster far away. So we tread gently in times of disaster and acknowledge tenderly the sisterhood and brotherhood we share in our human family.
The preface of the book notes, “Disasters fall into the paradoxical category of the ‘expected unexpected.’ Each individual disaster is unexpected, but disasters and trauma are expected.” Later, the authors make the point that the book most likely will be put on the shelf after the reader becomes familiar with the content, only to reach for it when a disaster strikes. I suspect this issue of Vision will be treated the same way. However, I do hope you, as a reader, become familiar with content of this issue on preparing for and how to minister in disasters. We are grateful to the authors and to all our members who sacrifice their time and other commitments to serve in the disaster spiritual care ministry.