by Pamela J. Nielsen
It could have been anywhere — Japan; the Jersey Shore; Moore, Okla.; or Boulder, Colo. — anywhere where people were tucked soundly in bed early on a Saturday morning.
It could have been a tornado, a flood or a hurricane. This time, it was an 8.8-magnitude earthquake that changed the lives of millions when it rocked the central region of Chile at 3:30 a.m. on Feb. 27, 2010.
The quake, one of the strongest ever recorded, sped up the earth’s rotation and shifted the earth’s axis nearly three inches. The subsequent tsunami and multiple strong aftershocks added insult to further injury. Thousands were crushed as buildings collapsed on top of them; whole families were washed away as the ocean rushed in and out. Some 700 lives were lost and 1.5 million homes and other buildings were damaged beyond repair, leaving countless thousands suddenly homeless.
As Lutherans in northern Chile watched the news reports with the rest of the world, they could not stand idle. With few people and fewer resources, the Confessional Lutheran Church of Chile (ILC-Chile) quickly and carefully organized to respond.
What could they do? What difference could they make? The church leaders determined to assemble teams that would make the 350-mile journey to the region at the epicenter of the earthquake.
Each team, made up of a variety of volunteers with particular skills, among them medical, psychological and construction workers, also would include a Lutheran pastor.
The Rev. Christian Rautenberg, president of the ILC-Chile, explained that it was a priority to send in pastors who could provide soul care, both for the volunteers who would surely see and experience horrific suffering as well as for the victims of the earthquake whose lives were forever changed.
When the Lutherans arrived in the cities of Talca and Constitución, the people were stunned — “Why would you come so far to help us? We are not Lutheran, there are no Lutherans here, why did you come?”
“Because of Christ Jesus and His mercy for us on the cross,” explained the Lutherans.
Today, almost three years later, the Lutherans are still there bearing mercy in rich and wonderful ways. In fact, in each of these cities, there is a new congregation gathered around a Lutheran altar, pulpit and font, along with a community center that provides mercy and care to help people get back on their feet through job training, children’s programs and other services. Baptisms and confirmations have resulted.
The Lutheran Difference
That’s the Lutheran difference. Mercy leads to Gospel proclamation where lives, crushed by sin and death, are restored forever in Christ Jesus.
“And you think what I do is about disaster response? It is about the ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” exclaimed the Rev. Glenn Merritt, director of LCMS Disaster Response, in his opening remarks to the church leaders attending the first South American Lutheran Disaster Response Conference held in Santiago, Chile, this past September.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, the Chilean church invited LCMS Disaster Response to partner with it. LCMS disaster dollars helped to provide temporary housing for several thousand people in three refugee camps, along with supplies and materials used by the ILC-Chile in its ongoing disaster response to this day.
Merritt and the Rev. Carlos Hernandez, director of LCMS Church and Community Engagement, made several trips to Chile, walking alongside members of ILC-Chile, providing counsel and expertise born of their extensive disaster-response experience. Merritt, who is retiring in 2014 after eight years leading LCMS Disaster Response efforts, has personally been on the scene of no less than 240 disasters around the world.
“The example I use around the world is the example of Chile,” Merritt said, “because it has touched peoples’ lives in time and for eternity.”
Equipped for Mercy
LCMS Disaster Response has evolved since the time of Hurricane Katrina, when we, like our nation, realized we were not prepared to respond to the magnitude of suffering caused by the storm.
At the time, the LCMS Council of Presidents met with then Executive Director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care Rev. Matthew Harrison, setting the course for current LCMS Disaster Response efforts.
Today, the LCMS has one or more trained disaster coordinators in each of our 35 districts. When disaster occurs in a community, the responsibility to respond and assess the situation begins with the local congregation, which then may request the capacity of the district, working through the district disaster coordinator, who in turn may request LCMS Disaster Response assistance.
Merritt explains, “So rather than top-down, it is turned the other way. The congregation is on the top and as much as we are asked, we supply the support requested. From the Synod, through the district, to the local congregation.”
Internationally, we work with our partner churches, using the LCMS regional directors (RDs) as disaster coordinators. We can provide emergency relief grants, volunteer teams and expertise to our partner churches. “However, we never come unless we are invited,” said Merritt.
When disaster strikes, the LCMS is able to respond swiftly because of the generosity of those who give for disaster response. Unrestricted gifts allow us to immediately respond, providing needed resources for the local district and congregation. Disaster dollars also enable disaster-preparedness training for the districts and our partner churches through disaster conferences like the one the Latin America.
As Merritt wraps up nearly a decade of bearing mercy in some of the most difficult and trying situations, he is hopeful that the lessons he and Hernandez have learned and the training they have provided across our country and the globe will result in a global Lutheran disaster-response network that is ready to respond with Christ’s mercy whenever and wherever disaster strikes.
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