By Kim Plummer Krull
ST. LOUIS — Sporting his U.S. Army uniform, the Rev. Rod Armon looks like he’s prepared should a disaster hit anywhere near Doniphan, Neb., the community where he serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church.
But Armon, who is also state chaplain for the Nebraska National Guard, said he was “feeling overwhelmed in a good way” by the wealth of information he gleaned at the Fourth LCMS National Disaster Response Conference, Oct. 8-10 at the LCMS International Center here.
“I’m really impressed by the enormity of what is being done by The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod,” said Armon, referring to the LCMS congregation-based disaster-response preparedness program. “This is making sure we’re proactive rather than reactive. It’s a huge effort that directly impacts an enormous number of people.”
Armon was one of some 75 people involved in LCMS district disaster-response efforts throughout the country who took part in the conference, presented by LCMS Disaster Response.
Participants included self-described disaster-response “newbies” as well as veterans whose congregations are leading ambitious responses to historic storms and floods. (To see pictures from the conference on Facebook, visit www.facebook.com/TheLCMS).
Throughout the conference, the Rev. Glenn F. Merritt, director of LCMS Disaster Response, highlighted insights from the past seven years. During that time, Merritt has responded to more than 240 disasters worldwide.
He called congregation-based disaster response “a ministry of presence.”
“For the church, there is nothing more important than being present” when lives turn upside down, he said.
“While government and social-service agency efforts are being mobilized, Lutherans at the local level have the opportunity for outreach and ministry to those in need in the aftermath of a disaster,” Merritt said. “You don’t have to wait for permission. This is what God wants the Church to do.”
Much of the conference focused on learning to use the new training manual, “Mercy in Action: Preparing Congregations for Disaster Response.” The manual updates the comprehensive disaster-response initiative Merritt developed for LCMS districts and congregations that was introduced after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The major change, Merritt said, is the streamlined, easy-to-use educational format and accompanying PowerPoint resource.
“Mercy in Action” outlines the nuts and bolts of equipping a Lutheran Early Response Team (LERT), trained volunteers who serve in a disaster’s wake. LERT volunteers are credentialed, Merritt said, in the eyes of both the LCMS and other recognized government and non-government organizations.
But instead of serving as first responders, Merritt stressed, LERT members activate only after emergency professionals declare a site safe to enter.
In his conference keynote address, the Rev. Paul Krueger, pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Minot, N.D., told how his congregation worked with LCMS Disaster Response and other partners to reach out to families after catastrophic floodwaters damaged or destroyed more than 4,000 homes in 2011.
“The local congregation can make a huge difference” when it looks “beyond the stained-glass windows … [and has] eyes open to the needs that are around and [when it] understands that it is ‘for a time such as this’ that God has placed His Church in this community … , Krueger said in an interview before his presentation, referring to Esther 4:14.
Krueger also spotlighted the continuing need for skilled volunteers at Hope Village, the faith-based recovery center built with the help of LCMS donors.
As many as 500 families will not “get back into their homes without help from our organization,” said Krueger, who serves as Hope Village director.
To raise funds to buy building supplies and help meet families’ most pressing unmet needs, a donor is offering a $50,000 matching “dollar for dollar” gift opportunity throughout November for Hope Village flood relief, Krueger said in an interview after the conference.
To learn more about the matching gift and volunteer opportunities, visit www.hopevillagend.org or call 701-240-1495.
Presenting at his fourth National Disaster Response Conference, the Rev. Carlos Hernandez called participants’ questions “more specific” compared to years past.
“We’re getting questions related to challenges and actual experiences in the field,” said Hernandez, director of LCMS Church and Community Development.
District disaster-response coordinators, pastors and other ministry leaders in attendance seemed “firm on the fact that we do disaster response in proximity to Word and Sacrament,” Hernandez said. “We’re now at the point where we’re moving from the conceptual to the practical, fine-tuning specifics of how we go out and put mercy in action.”
The Rev. Matthew Woods, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, New Albany, Ind., was participating in his first disaster response conference. Earlier this year, his congregation took the lead in recovery efforts after a deadly tornado damaged much of nearby Henryville.
“My eyes were opened. We knew we needed to be better prepared,” said Woods, who asked LCMS Disaster Response to lead LERT training soon after the storm to strengthen recovery work in the battered community.
The Rev. David Otten, another conference presenter, told how his small preaching station, Faith Lutheran Church in Eldorado, Ill., turned to LCMS Disaster Response, among others, for direction and grant monies to assist families after February tornadoes ravaged the neighboring Harrisburg community.
Months later, both pastors and their congregations are still involved with rebuilding and recovery needs — examples of another LCMS congregation-based disaster response tenet.
“Long after FEMA is gone, long after the Red Cross is gone, the local congregation will still be there,” said Merritt.
Not if but when
Merritt also emphasized that disaster response is based in the congregation, not at the LCMS International Center.
“The local community doesn’t care one whit about who the LCMS is, but they will long remember Immanuel Lutheran Church in Joplin,” Merritt said, referring to the congregation that continues working with partners and volunteers to rebuild the community decimated by an EF-5 tornado in 2011.
As director of Disaster Response for Transform Joplin, transformjoplin.com, Trent Davis already knows volumes about mobilizing a congregation to rebuild homes and lives.
Still, Davis took time from the ministry started by Immanuel to “network with others who are doing what I’m doing and hear about their experiences.”
In his welcome, LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison thanked the disaster responders for “giving your lives at the most challenging times in other peoples’ lives, when the most important thing needed is your presence.”
“You represent the church’s love for people hurting — you are Christ’s mouth, hands, feet,” said Harrison.
His vision, the LCMS president added, is to “keep the issue of disaster response in front of people, with more and more LCMS congregations and people at the forefront” of disaster preparedness and to continue building LCMS capacity worldwide.
Those words make sense to Deaconess Tiffany Manor, who serves with Lutheran Church Charities, based in Addison, Ill., and leads LERT training. Congregation-based disaster response offers opportunities to care for suffering people with an understanding of the “theology of the cross,” she said.
Although the Central Illinois District has been hit by no recent widespread disasters, Manor said preparation is a must.
“It’s not a matter of if [a disaster will strike], it’s when and where,” the deaconess said.
Plans are in the works to post conference presentations and resources on the LCMS Disaster Response website, www.lcms.org/disaster. For more information, call 800-248-1930, Ext. 1711.
Kim Plummer Krull is a freelance writer and a member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Des Peres, Mo.
Posted Oct. 24, 2012