Washington mudslide disaster: the heart of the matter

Washington mudslide disaster: the heart of the matter April 9, 2014

More than two weeks after the horrendous mudslide in Oso, Wash., news coverage is taking a different turn. Gone are the frenetic rescue stories and the first profiles of those lost, and in their place are more broad-based stories about those who will help residents recover long-term.

From the Seattle Times comes this piece about the faith community, both local and transplanted, in the wake of the tragedy. While we would expect this type of coverage at this stage in the developing story, this report seems different. Not only is it well-sourced, but it moved me to empathy in a way I didn’t really expect.

People of faith, ministers and chaplains have responded to the deadly March 22 mudslide as a calling. They’re on the ground in Oso, Darrington and Arlington, trying to help shocked survivors pick up and go on. The transition from overwhelming loss to healing will be slow and difficult, they say.

“I’ve been ordained 38 years, so I’ve seen a lot, but I’ve never been a part of something this dramatic and all-encompassing,” said the Rev. Tim Sauer, pastor at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Arlington and St. John Vianney in Darrington.

“There is a heightened sense of numbness, at least initially. It’s been two weeks now, so the realities are starting to kick in.”

I expected at this point to be told about the scramble for finding housing for the displaced or how hundreds of donors are bringing furniture or clothing to be sorted through by eager volunteers. The living tend to busy themselves non-stop in the activity of serving so that they don’t have time to think, really.

Not so. We instead hear thoughts about “being present” for those who have lost a loved one. “Emotional care” is emphasized by those working close to hurting families.

This story illustrates the presence of ministry in a way few post-disaster pieces even attempt. It’s almost as if the staff understands another role the media might have in a situation like this: to encourage the community to engage in spiritual reflection and to take time to assess their mental health as well as offering physical and emotional assistance to those directly affected.

The need to minister to people traumatized by natural disasters is attracting more attention from faith-based organizations, said the Rev. Frederick Streets, a social-work professor at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Conn., and former chaplain of Yale University.

Grief felt over the sudden loss of a loved one, coupled with massive property damage, can lead to health ailments, substance abuse and other problems if left untreated, Streets said.

“Grief is a natural reaction to loss, and it becomes more complicated when the loss is traumatic and unforeseen,” he said. “Even people who survived the mudslide have to deal with dislocation.”

Chad Blood, pastor at Lifeway Foursquare Church in Arlington, initially busied himself with phone calls to determine, “Who needs clothes, who needs water?” But his role changed when a volunteer firefighter in Darrington asked if he could come to the local community center, “to sit with people, engage with them and love them.”

There are a few questionable phrases, more colloquial within a certain denomination than a matter of AP style (one mention of “following” a religion comes immediately to mind). But overall this is a story that not only highlights the sweat and strained muscles that faith-based disaster relief organizations expend during a disaster but places above that their emphasis on the emotional upheaval victims and local residents are experiencing.

The Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, which was formed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, deployed six
chaplains trained to deal with crisis situations to the Oso area, said the group’s international director, Jack Munday.

“I’ve been in 14 countries where there has been a natural disaster. Everybody goes through an emotional response unlike anything they’ve ever experienced before,” he said. Often, that disaster tests their faith, he said.

“No one who goes through tragedy will ever get over it, but they will work through it,” he added. “You hear people say, ‘If I have answers to these questions, I’ll find closure.’ I don’t know what that means. Is it closing a book and now it’s over? I don’t think it’s fair to suggest closure. You just work through it. And you kind of live a life that has new normals.”

Nice job under difficult circumstances, Seattle Times.

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