‘We were here before the disaster, we were here during the disaster and we are here after the disaster.’

Church and resilienceDisaster response and preparednessDisaster risk reductionLivelihoods

The power of the church

The quote in our title is from a pastor in Honduras, speaking after Hurricane Mitch in 1998. He points out that while others might come and go, the church will always be here.

The town of Basey, in Samar, Philippines, was destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013. Photo: Marcus Perkins

Did you know that the church can make a significant impact in the midst of a disaster or crisis? Churches have a powerful role in setting an example in the community, forming networks and building relationships to facilitate disaster management. 

Churches also help to identify risks and reduce their potential impact, and respond to disasters. We’ve heard some amazing stories of how the local church is preparing for, responding to and reducing the impact of disasters – whether these are floods or windstorms, droughts or earthquakes. 

Setting a personal example in Honduras 

Church leaders can set a good example to their congregations by preparing their own families for disasters. In Honduras, one pastor decided to move his garden to a higher location, despite the land being less productive, because it would be safer in case of flooding. When the rain came, the uplands he was cultivating were not affected. He has since used this example to convince others in his community that it will help them to be more resilient to future floods. 

Forming networks in Bangladesh 

The church can also play a role in forming networks and linking to other humanitarian agencies. In Bangladesh, some church members formed an Inter-Church Networking Committee (ICN) aiming to conduct advocacy, networking and coordination activities in relation to disasters. 

After its formation, a local community was hit by a storm that destroyed the homes of 13 families, injured three people and destroyed crops and animals. Church members within the community reached out to ICN for assistance. 

ICN communicated with the local government and NGOs and requested support for the affected families. They also took action by administering first aid and mobilising funds that were reportedly used to support the poorest families. After the crisis, ICN gave training to community members on planting hazard-resistant crops and assisting families who had lost their houses with reconstruction.

How we respond to disasters can be seen as a series of stages that are linked together. In some areas of the world this disaster cycle is repeated, because of the vulnerable places in which people live or because of their local weather patterns.

Planning ahead in the Philippines

A church in Gigantes Islands, located to the north-east of Panay in the Philippines, recognised the importance of preparing the church building for use as an evacuation centre and took some practical steps to do so. This included increasing the number of toilets in preparation for an influx of people. They also met with leaders to influence the local development and preparedness plan.  

Similarly, in Nepal and Bangladesh church leaders have opened the doors to their churches (and, in one case, a home) as evacuation centres, as well as providing trauma counselling.  

Looking out for the vulnerable in Ecuador 

Churches can also play a role in seeking out and serving vulnerable groups within the community. In Ecuador, for example, after the 2014 earthquakes, there was a notable increase in cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse of children. Churches held discussions on how they could intervene and what assistance they could provide to children who faced abuse. 

Gathering data in Guatemala

Church leaders can also gather data on the needs of those affected by disasters. For example, in Guatemala, church leaders collected data that was used to access funding to provide shelter and conduct cash transfer programming. 

These stories come from an independent review conducted by the Research People in 2018. If you are interested in learning more about how your church can engage with disasters, you can read the report here: Disasters and the local church: guidelines for church leaders in disaster-prone areas.

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Lauren Kejeh
Lauren Kejeh is a Humanitarian Impact and Learning Officer at Tearfund. Email: lauren.kejeh@tearfund.org