Relief leader explains how faith spurs action after storms

Reprint from The Advocate 

BY MARK H. HUNTER, Special to The Advocate,  May 07, 2012 

Soon after Catholic Charities disaster aid workers arrived in Joplin, Mo., following the catastrophic, May 22 tornado, children were telling them stories of butterflies.

“As we were talking to folks that only had half of a house and were living under tarps, and no running water or anything left of their life other than the clothes they had on, the more we talked to the children, the kids started talking about seeing butterflies during the tornado,” said Gabe Tischler, the disaster coordinator for Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri.

Gabe Tischler speaks at Catholic Charities Disaster Preparedness Conference

Tischler was in Baton Rouge recently for a disaster preparedness seminar with about 40 Catholic Charities staffers and volunteers gathered at the Diocese of Baton Rouge’s Tracy Center.

He shared with them some of the Joplin children’s stories, stories such as “There were butterflies holding me down” from one child and from another, “There were butterflies holding my dad’s foot down, and I could see them.”

“Well, what are the butterflies to the children?” Tishler rhetorically asked his audience. “Angels. How else do you explain that?

“How do you explain kids seeing butterflies in the middle of a tornado when everything else is being blown away?” Tischler continued as his listeners marveled, some daubing tears from their eyes. “It’s just a really good example of how our faith can carry us through anything.”

Faith also motivates many of the people who respond when disasters strike.

Catholic, Baptist, Salvation Army and other faith-based relief workers say they are always ready to respond when needs arise. Even so, as another hurricane season approaches, this is a time of year when such organizations typically make more preparations and encourage individuals to do so as well.

Carol S. Spruell, communications coordinator for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, met Tischler when they assessed the situation at American Samoa following the 2004 tsunami, and he helped here in 2008 with Hurricane Gustav recovery.

A late-April disaster seminar, she said, was meant to prepare the diocese’s volunteers for what may be a stormy hurricane season.

“We want to be able to respond efficiently and compassionately,” Spruell said. “Our churches and our people are the front line when it comes to a disaster and we want to be prepared for anything.”

Tischler, who has managed 22,000 volunteers in the past year, talked about the progress rebuilding hundreds of still-damaged homes around Joplin and advised his Baton Rouge audience members to make sure they have disaster plans for themselves, their families, and their church parish.

He related how the local Catholic churches “stepped up” to help their neighbors and told stories of provision that cannot be explained other than divine providence. He compared some events to the Biblical story of Jesus feeding thousands of people with only a few loaves and fish.

“One day we were cleaning homes and got down to the last bottle of bleach and a semi-truck showed up filled with cleaning supplies,” Tischler said. “This has been loaves and fishes since day one.

“This has reinforced my faith even more,” Tischler said. “When I first started this I was worried every day how we were going to pay for it and now I no longer lose sleep on it. It’s going to happen and it just happens.”

Tischler said faith-based relief workers have seen a new respect from the federal government after the faith community stepped up following Hurricane Katrina. He called it “the new FEMA.”

“Besides all the inadequacies of a bureaucracy, FEMA has come to recognize the value of the churches and religious organizations,” Tischler said. FEMA workers are “actually reaching out to us to connect us with knowing how to be better prepared.”

He encouraged the Catholic workers to build relationships with other faith-based groups and make the overall load lighter to bear.

“If I put four or five of these groups on these homes, I only have to spend a fraction of the cost,” Tischler said. “We’re here for the same reason, we believe in the same God and we all want to help people.”

Catholic Charities along with many other faith-based groups including the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Southern Baptist Convention North American Mission Board and the Salvation Army belong to Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster as do some secular relief agencies such as the Red Cross and the American Radio Relay League.

Maj. Stephen Long, commanding officer of the Salvation Army of Greater Baton Rouge, and Gibbie McMillan, director of disaster relief for the Louisiana Baptist Convention, also talked recently about preparing for disasters.

“We’re ready to respond with the compassion of our Lord and Savior and try and bring some alleviation of suffering and hope,” Long said.

When Gustav hit, the Salvation Army drew on its nationwide cadre of volunteers and vehicles and had 25 canteens waiting and then served 175,000 meals in two and a half weeks, expending over $3 million worth of food, he said.

McMillan said that Louisiana Baptists are prepared with 46 trained chainsaw units, 4,300 trained volunteers, three feeding units with the capacity to produce 75,000 meals a day, and 10 shower units stationed across the state.

The Baptists are meeting with the Red Cross to organize local churches to be used for emergency shelters, he said, noting that 92 to 95 percent of the food delivered by Red Cross is prepared by Southern Baptist Disaster Relief teams.

“They couldn't do their job unless we do our job,” McMillan said. “At the same time we could not fulfill those needs without the Red Cross response vehicles.”

Like Tischler, Long and McMillan recommend that individuals be ready as well.

“The more people that are ready with their own plan, emergency resources, and water, power, (they) ought to do that in order that we can respond to a greater crowd,” Long said. 

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