The three mass-casualty disasters in the Northeast this past year — Superstorm Sandy, the Newtown shootings and Boston Marathon bombings — brought attention and the nation’s sympathies not only to the victims but also to the many people who came to their aid: particularly police, fire and medical first-responders.
Countless others answered the call to help, volunteering time and donating millions. Still another kind of response was evident in Hartford recently.
A two-day course in disaster spiritual care — an effort that began in earnest after 9/11 — came to Hartford Seminary, led by a representative of the National Disaster Interfaiths Network in New York City.
The timing wasn’t a response to the recent calamities — the course was already planned as part of the seminary’s program to certify interfaith chaplains — but the heightened interest this year almost certainly was, said Lucinda Mosher, faculty associate for interfaith studies.
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The seminary hosted the disaster training last year, too, but had trouble drumming up interest.
“And then Newtown happened, and then the Boston Marathon happened, and people have been coming out of the woodwork for this training,” Mosher said. She’s already planning to add a second two-day session in September.
The Rev. Ruth Yoder Wenger, training coordinator for National Disaster Interfaiths Network, said she has noticed a surge of interest in training classes in New York City, too, especially after storm Sandy, but also after Newtown and Boston.
The course addresses the role of spiritual and emotional care in the life cycle of a disaster, mental health care, and self-care.
Put aside any notion of evangelical SWAT teams swooping down on trauma victims in the chaos of a calamity.
The first day, people are in shock. Trainers tell chaplains to know their place, respect the chain of command, help where they can, get out of the way where they can’t.
Wenger said there are immediate matters to tend to: “Provide what’s needed, but also keep an ear open for emotional responses. It’s not counseling. It’s not ‘How are you feeling?’ It’s ‘How can I help?’ ‘Do you need water?’ ‘Do you know where your relatives are?’”
“Now, if someone says, ‘Please help me, please pray for me,’ then it’s appropriate. But when people are in shock, that’s usually a couple of days away,” Wenger said.
A disaster chaplain’s work can become more pronounced as time goes on in the days, weeks and months after an event.
“People in any sort of a disaster, but people especially in mass-casualty situations, many of them will look to their faith for solace, comfort,” said Mosher, of Hartford Seminary.
“If they’re going to be in a disaster evacuation situation for very long, they’re going to have their religious rituals they’re going to want to be able to conduct because it gives them strength and solace. And so the disaster chaplains can provide that, they can also be the bridge between the people who want spiritual care and the people who are really busy dealing with bricks, mortar and broken bodies, to give them the space both physically and mentally to do whatever it is they need to do.
“Also,” Mosher said, “there are issues of dress and food regulations which, in a disaster situation, all bets are off on many fronts. You can’t necessarily get Buddhist care or Muslim care for this body right here, but you can have a little bit of sensitivity. The more multi-religiously sensitive everybody involved is, the less likely you will be to make it worse, spiritually.”
Course participants are taught to know their professional limits, and to refer to mental health professionals cases that are best handled there. Written guidelines advise them against ”proselytizing, sermonizing, or promoting a particular religion or world view.“
That’s something the Rev. Emily C. Heath can appreciate.
Heath, a United Church of Christ minister, is pastor at a Congregational church in West Dover, Vt. In 2011, a few days after Tropical Storm Irene washed out roads and homes in her community, she noticed people in town wearing T-shirts with “Chaplain” printed on them; she said they told her they were Red Cross ”trauma chaplains.“
Heath, a chaplain herself, for the local fire department, said she was suspicious and found out that they were not sent by the Red Cross and, from what she could tell, were really looking for converts — ”the last thing people need right now.“
So Heath said she likes the idea of a screening process, of a respected seminary credentialing chaplains for this sort of work, teaching them how to respond to a disaster, and to respect people of all faiths — and no faith.
The National Disaster Interfaiths Network credentials those who go through the two-day course. To qualify, volunteers must have the written endorsement of a legal official to whom they report and be a credentialed faith leader or provide spiritual care in a house of worship, or work as a chaplain or licensed pastoral counselor. In addition, they must complete an online course of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.