How to Minister in the Wake of Tragedy, Violence, and Disaster
Published: August 5, 2019
These three ministries have overcome tragedy, violence, and disaster. Here are their stories—and what you can learn from their experiences.
When tragedy strikes a community, it often comes quickly and without much, if any, warning. Often churches find themselves in the position of picking up the pieces—whether it’s physical pieces after a disaster or emotional pieces after a tragedy. In the wreckage left behind, the church can shine as a beacon of light and hope in a dark, dark moment.
We recently talked with some incredible children’s ministers who’ve watched their communities face tragedies so massive they made global news. These leaders have been in the trenches, offering solace, shelter, sometimes simply food or water, to serve people living through life-altering tragedy. Here are their stories.
In September 2018, a powerful hurricane barreled toward the Carolinas. Newscasters warned of historic destruction as the hurricane—named Florence—took aim at the coast, packing winds up to 130 mph and dropping nearly 36 inches of rain. Florence did up to $50 billion in damage and took more than 50 lives, leveling entire neighborhoods and wreaking destruction that will take years to rebuild.
In the Moment
Our church is on the beach—Wrightsville Beach. Hurricane Florence went right over Wrightsville Beach. It was a direct hit; remarkably, our church only had about an inch of water standing on the first level, and we were able to get in pretty quickly and clean up. We had no mold and no major issues, which was a blessing. It was almost impossible to believe. We were preparing for the worst, but we actually had the best situation possible. The surrounding areas…not so much. The areas and counties all around us had a lot of damage.
Once the surrounding devastation became clear, our church as a whole moved into action. Wrightsville Beach is a community with the means to do a lot for others, and immediately everyone said, “What can we do? We have to do something. We have to put our love into action and help people rebuild and recover.”
There was a flurry of wanting to help but not knowing exactly how. We couldn’t get back on the island until the power was restored, so there was a four- or five-day delay. But once we were able to open the building, we had a “Mission Monday” the Monday after the storm. Our children and the church community came out and built Blessing Bags—one [set] with snacks (like bottles of water, crackers, a tuna or chicken packet, and a granola bar) and one [set] with hygiene items (like a toothbrush, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, and a brush). We ended up making about 1,000 of each kind of bag in the morning, and by afternoon our teenagers were distributing them downtown. It was really beautiful.
We also adopted two trailer parks. We found that the people living in these trailer parks were not asking for help, likely due to not having the correct documentation. These people were literally sitting in trailers with no roofs, no electricity, no food. They were scared to ask for help because of the government. So we found these two trailer parks and adopted them. Once per week, we’d go and set up a little shop like a grocery store. They could come and get whatever they needed for free. We also had a clothes closet where they could get clothing and diapers. We did that for six to twelve weeks until the residents were getting back on their feet.
There’s one truly beautiful story that came out of this “adoption” experience. My husband is the principal at Wrightsville Beach Elementary School, which is right across the street from our church. He went to check on all his kids, and one of the families was in the trailer park. They were sitting there with no roof—three kids and their mother. She was scared and didn’t know what to do and didn’t speak much English. The school and the church came together and raised $25,000 in three weeks. We were able to buy her a brand-new trailer. We have a contractor who demolished her old home, which was worthless due to the storm damage. I still can’t believe we raised that much money in three weeks. She and her kids were in the trailer by Christmas.
We didn’t sustain much damage as a church; that allowed us a great deal of ability to really jump in and serve the people around us. This situation allowed us to develop friendships with the neighborhoods around us. We learned a lot during this experience.
Be available to all your kids and families.
They need you. Be there for them. Listen to them. Pray with them. Love them through the situation. Help them in any way you can. Just be available. Let them cry. Let them yell, scream, talk— whatever they need to do.
Maintain effective efforts.
We continued Mission Mondays as a ministry. We’ll keep it going when school’s out in the summer. That’s been a way the hurricane impacted us positively. We also adopted families, and we became a collection site for a food pantry.
Open your arms to the community.
We formed new relationships with [people in] the neighborhood—most who don’t attend our church. We’ve let people know that we’re here for them and we care about them if they need something. Our teenagers adopted elderly people and did yard cleanup for them during the four weeks they were out of school. The kids organized that themselves. It was a big deal for our younger children to see teenagers step up in that way.
Be in it for the long haul.
We adopted 12 families with different needs. We got one family’s car fixed, clothes for another family, and new kitchen supplies for another.
Christina Norvell is the director of children and youth ministries at Wrightsville United Methodist Church in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, where she serves 300-475 kids weekly. She was originally the youth director for more than four years before the children’s area was added to her responsibilities. Her church was in the direct path of Hurricane Florence.
Oklahoma’s Deadly EF5 Tornado
On May 20, 2013, an EF5 tornado, with winds topping 210 mph, ripped through Moore, Oklahoma. Laying waste to a swath approximately 20 miles wide, the tornado was on the ground for 37 minutes. The tornado killed 24 people, injured 212, and leveled a heavily populated area of the city. The devastation was tremendous—and made all the more horrific in that the same area had been devastated by the 1999 Bridge Creek-Moore tornado.
In the Moment
Ours is a story of God going before us to prepare the way. The EF5 tornado destroyed the city around our church; this was the second time a tornado devastated this same area. Our church was the reunion location for children who were whisked away from the high schools that day to keep them safe.
As a church, we’d recently been trained and approved to be a Red Cross shelter. We had people in place committed to cover the church 24/7 in the event of an emergency. Our church became the Red Cross shelter for the next three and a half months and a donation location for both drop-off and pickup. We had members of our church running a seemingly well-oiled machine. We set up a food pantry and a clothing closet. There were supplies to dig, remove, and clean up the aftermath. We had thousands of diapers and water bottles. Red Cross lined our double gym with cots. Our church members were rock stars, never letting up with work and prayer.
Our community lost 24 people that day. Seven were students at Plaza Towers Elementary School. Another school, Briarwood Elementary, was completely destroyed. We had two church families whose children were missing for several hours in the rubble. Those families have since thrust themselves into the service of others. We had church family who were teachers, administrators, and students represented at all the schools in the tornado’s pathway.
Those wounds don’t quickly fade with time. That’s been my biggest motivation to seek a degree in child play therapy—to be part of the long-term ministry to these families. We’ve provided financial assistance, counseling, opportunities to serve, and always ways to worship the one, true, loving God. And sometimes, we’ve had to reintroduce people who live in fear back to God. But to witness those reunions is oh-so-sweet.
Nationwide, May is a month of high stress with families prepping for summer, graduations, and wedding season. In Oklahoma, we add to that the stress of tornado season. Many of our church families essentially live in 5×7-foot underground cement rooms during this season, doing homework by flashlight with bike helmets on, waiting for the next disaster to strike.
It’s interesting to minister to these families because I was nine months pregnant on that day. I live 28 miles northwest of my church. My senior pastor instructed me to go home, to get out of the path of the tornado we’d been warned about. As I drove away, I remember seeing blue skies and calm in front of me. I looked back at the dark-gray, swirling sky, knowing those I worked with, ministered to, and called friends were in harm’s way. I felt selfish for not staying; and later, for having a home to go home to.
I’m not immune to the pain, and I’m not naïve to the possibility of destruction, but I also don’t live in fear the way I see these families living. Is it because my house received no damage? Is it because I have a different kind of trust? Am I callous? These questions give me pause, but they don’t stop me from seeing their fear and pain. Our families live closer to fear than most. They live in a state of never taking safety or security for granted. I want to help transfer their dependence on and love for each other to a trust and dependence on and love for God.
Understand the depth of what you do.
Children’s ministry is so much more than good curriculum or programs. Never underestimate the critical role you play or the importance of your actions or words.
The immediate aftermath of a tragedy is the easiest to be part of and often where we feel most impactful. The long-term aftermath is harder, but it’s where God’s faithfulness shines and the real work begins. Availability and persistence are where God uses you. People don’t know what to ask for, so listen when they process. God will reveal to you what they need—whether it’s physical, spiritual, emotional, or social. Listen, persistently.
Susan Robinson is the former director of children and family ministries at St. Andrew’s Community United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. She is now a counselor specializing in play therapy.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas School Shooting
On February 14, 2018, in Parkland, Florida, a former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School entered the school and perpetrated the deadliest shooting at a high school in U.S. history. The shooter murdered 17 students and staff members and injured 17 more, then escaped the scene, resulting in an hours-long manhunt that ended with the suspect’s arrest. The horrific shooting left the community and country reeling.
In the Moment
Our immediate response to this horrific tragedy was to make ourselves available as a church body to community leaders, first responders, schools, and families. Whether that was offering counseling and prayer or handing out food and sweeping floors, it was (and is) our desire to serve this community in any way possible. We needed our community to understand that we weren’t going anywhere. Long after the cameras and spotlight are turned off, when our community is no longer a part of the national daily dialogue, we’ll still be here with a fervent desire to serve them.
It was important to Joe and me that the families we served knew—right from the beginning—that they could talk to us about anything. We weren’t going to put an expiration date on their access to us. Sometimes people are afraid to share feelings of anger, frustration, or doubt with their pastors. They think they have to mask those feelings of hurt and somehow power through the pain. They also may believe, after time has passed, that they should be at a certain point in their grief process. But the truth is, grief is so individualistic. We want children and families to be themselves with us, to have honest discussions, and to know we’re going to be there for them tomorrow and next year and in the years to come, as they reflect on what has happened from different stages of their lives. The dialogue remains open.
1 John 4:18 (NIV) tells us “perfect love drives out fear.” Jesus is that perfect demonstration of perfect love. We don’t want to give fear sanctuary in our kids ministry.
Review your purpose for everything.
We’re now extra-passionate about using every nook and cranny of our kid space and our worship time each week to share Jesus and his Word. It’s important that every game, every craft, every song we sing helps children pack their mind’s “backpack” with Scriptures they can pull from in personal moments of fear and sadness. We may only share an hour with these children each week. But if our lessons are engaging and memorable, we can help children and families truly begin applying God’s Word to their daily lives.
Create direct lines of support for families.
I was a kid who was afraid of the dark. I slept with a nightlight even when I was in college. That light answered the dark when I was at my most vulnerable, just trying to find rest. After the Parkland tragedy, I was reminded of Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path.” I knew we needed to give families more ways they could keep a light shining in their homes all week long. We started an Instagram account (@missrachelfromcoastal) with practical ways families could apply the lessons their kids were learning in class. We began having a prayer focus and Scripture for the week, even in our infant and toddler rooms. It’s our prayerful hope that parents will maintain an ongoing dialogue about Jesus and his Word with their children. More than ever, we want to help support that dialogue any way we can.
Beef up safety and security.
Security within our children’s ministry has always been important to Coastal. Even as a mobile church, meeting in a local high school and movie theater, we were diligent about having all our teachers and assistants background-checked, with service coordinators patrolling our children’s spaces during our multiple worship experiences. Now that we are in a building of our own, we’ve maintained that high standard. We’ve also added security doors to limit access to our kid spaces and a volunteer security team to patrol our campus during services.
Children are the best lie detectors in the world. They know when you’re trying to herd them through some formulaic program, and they don’t like it. I think it’s important to give children the respect of being real and allowing them to share their thoughts and feelings with you. Then it’s our duty to guide them to the Scriptures that can provide the answers they need because I am not the way, the truth, and the life. That’s Jesus.
Rachel and Joe Stauffer are the retired children’s pastors at Coastal Community Church in Parkland, Florida. Before that, Rachel served as a volunteer in children’s ministry for 23 years. Coastal Community Church is just over a mile away from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Trauma is more common in the lives of children than we think. It can be initiated by abuse, bullying, divorce, domestic violence, auto accidents, natural disasters, and gun violence. As ministry leaders, volunteers, and parents, the more we educate ourselves on topics affecting children, the better equipped we are to help them heal. We can be lifesavers for children experiencing trauma.
Because we know God answers prayer, prayer is our first step in meeting the needs of a traumatized child. Ask God to give the child courage and strength to move forward without fear and to feel his presence. Pray that God surrounds the child with loving, caring people who have the child’s well-being in mind. Ask God to help you reach the child and help you recognize when professional help is required.
Build good relationships.
Eye contact shows the child that you take a real interest in his or her life and that you sincerely care. One-on-one conversations and good listening skills will help you understand what the child’s thinking and feeling. Don’t overreact to what the child shares. Don’t make light of his or her feelings; take them seriously. Share examples of how you rely on God. Let the child know how God has been present for you. Once you have a relationship, you can build trust. God will work through you to support the child.
Encourage the child to interact with others.
After a traumatic experience, a child might struggle socially. Keep an eye on the child’s interactions in your class, and encourage partnerships with others. Invite a compassionate child to pair up with the child and form a relationship. Social interaction is important because having friends to interact with is a positive outlet.
Provide tools to help the child cope.
A good book with positive principles and characters can offer the child a positive perspective on a situation. Books can be a fun, helpful way to engage a child after a traumatic event. Read the book together, and talk about its focus. Talk about Bible stories that show God’s help and protection, like when God found Gideon hiding from the Midianites (Judges 6) and how God was with Moses when he was afraid to speak with Pharaoh (Exodus 3 and 4). Even though Gideon and Moses were afraid, God was with them and gave them victory. Writing and drawing can also be effective ways for kids to express their experiences. Give the child a journal or sketchbook.
Marie Tucker is an author and has served in children’s ministry for 33 years.
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