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Religious practice is declining. Here's why that's bad news for disaster recovery

SALT LAKE CITY — About a week after Hurricane Michael made landfall in Florida last fall, John Kincaid pulled a semitrailer into the parking lot of Jenks Avenue Church of Christ in Panama City.

The truck's trailer held boxes of food, bottled water and detergent, supplies aimed at easing the suffering of a storm-ravaged community.

"After a disaster, people have problems getting food and water. That's what we bring in first thing," said Kincaid, who is a volunteer driver for Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort, Inc.

Kincaid took more than a dozen such trips in 2018, responding to ice storms, flooding, hurricanes and other tragic events. He lost sleep and skipped meals on the road, trying to do his part to help damaged churches and other people in need.

"I may make deliveries to a Church of Christ, but (the supplies) can be used by anybody who is hungry," he said.

For centuries, houses of worship have anchored communities' responses to natural disasters, organizing donation drives and offering comfort to the afflicted. That work continued in 2018, when faith groups collected resources for California wildfire victims and sent medical teams to cities devastated by tsunamis.

“Even as we see shifts happening with religious participation and demographics, people continue to turn to churches for assistance during disasters.”

Jamie Aten, author of "A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience"

However, it's growing harder for faith groups to provide these services, since recent trends have led to smaller budgets and fewer volunteers. In the United States, church membership is declining, as is the number of Americans who say religion is a very important part of their lives.

These developments decrease the supply of faith-related disaster relief services but not the demand, since even non-churchgoers often feel called to church in the wake of tragedy, said Jamie Aten, author of "A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience," which will be published Jan. 14.

"Even as we see shifts happening with religious participation and demographics, people continue to turn to churches for assistance during disasters," he said.

Religion and disaster relief

After a natural disaster strikes in the U.S., people across the country mobilize to help the affected communities. Organizations like the American Red Cross collect donations, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sends a team to survey the damage and, if he's asked, Kincaid climbs behind the wheel of a semi truck loaded with food and water.

Ideally, these various responses complement each other. Government organizations may have more financial resources, but faith-based disaster relief agencies often move faster, handing out supplies that will tide people over until federal aid arrives, noted Kincaid, who is a retired police officer.

"A lot of times, faith-based groups are the first to get in. Sometimes it takes FEMA a week or two," he said, because of government red tape and staffing challenges.

On the ground, houses of worship play a crucial role in distributing donations and ensuring that all community members are accounted for, said Aten, who is the executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, where he also holds the Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership.

“Local faith communities have such an important role that no other disaster relief organization can play. They have established relationships and networks, and they know who is most vulnerable.”

Jamie Aten, author of "A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience"

"Local faith communities have such an important role that no other disaster relief organization can play. They have established relationships and networks, and they know who is most vulnerable," he said.

Additionally, houses of worship remain in place long after the initial wave of support dissipates, Aten added.

"Local faith communities and churches are there to help with the long-term recovery process. Other relief and development organizations eventually pack up and leave," he said.

Roxie Cline picks up items in the vicinity of her destroyed motor home that she lived in, in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018.

Gerald Herbert, Associated Press

Roxie Cline picks up items in the vicinity of her destroyed motor home that she lived in, in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018.

Some recent developments could help mitigate or offset the challenges to faith-based groups. One year ago, FEMA changed the policies governing public assistance funds to allow houses of worship to access more disaster relief funding, which helps religious leaders tasked with managing tight budgets.

The federal government is also using technological advancements to reduce storm damage and improve its disaster relief efforts, Fast Company reported in 2017. FEMA uses social media sites to disseminate information more effectively and track storm responses in real-time.

Social media also enables organizations that collect donations for disaster victims to better channel these resources to people in need, the article noted. A drop in the total amount of food or mattresses collected matters less if donations are efficiently spread across affected communities.

Spiritual support

Declining interest in organized religion threatens more than the supply of material goods to broken communities. It also decreases access to spiritual resources, which serve an important role in the healing process, Aten said.

"After (events like) 9/11 or major natural disasters, we see a drastic increase in church attendance. … People are in search of meaning and see churches as a place that can provide that," he said.

Houses of worship help people make sense of their loss, creating the space to grieve and then make plans for the future, said Endell Lee, a Southern Baptist chaplain, to Facts & Trends magazine in 2017.

Christina Amanda, right, and Connie Huff wait for an insurance adjuster as they look for their possessions at the site of their destroyed home in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018.

Gerald Herbert, Associated Press

Christina Amanda, right, and Connie Huff wait for an insurance adjuster as they look for their possessions at the site of their destroyed home in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018.

"People need someone to walk alongside them after a disaster," he said.

Research conducted after Hurricane Katrina showed that positive religious coping, or the sense of a strong connection to God and others, reduced negative mental health outcomes.

"We found that those who (found spiritual meaning in the experience) showed fewer PTSD symptoms," Aten said.

Aten came to understand the significance of these findings on a deeper level a few years ago, when he was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. His new book explores the importance of spiritual fortitude, which kept him going during a dark year of painful and exhausting cancer treatments.

"Religious virtues like hope, gratitude and forgiveness can be the building blocks for fortifying our lives against disasters," he said.

Although recent surveys held bad news for faith groups, Kincaid, Aten and others say houses of worship will continue to care for disaster victims for as long as they can.

"Disasters provide opportunities for churches to live out their faith and help others," Aten said.