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The Gift of Caring: Extreme Weather Preparedness

By Beatrice Ekoko, Hamilton Animator for the Lighthouse Project.

Weeks before Christmas. NYC. Uptown Manhattan. I’m in a room full of frighteningly extraordinary people: religious leaders who practice the art of disaster chaplaincy. Spiritual care givers, they are angels of hope to victims of mass trauma. I am the only Canadian in the room and the sole participant not affiliated with a religion. I have travelled 350 miles for this two-day “disaster chaplaincy” training, run by the National Disaster Interfaiths Network (NDIN), where religious leaders learn how to prepare to serve in emergencies.

When the facilitator, Peter Gudaitis, CEO of NDIN, asks us to tell what gifts we have brought with us to share, I have no idea what to say, I, who have not witnessed the terror of 9/11, who cannot conceive of the horror of Sandy Hook, or the Orlando shootings, who knows nothing about the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Harvey, Irma, Maria.

I am filled with their brightness. We seem worlds apart.

While they place themselves in the thick of it, ministering to the grief-stricken, I am on the periphery. I have only recently started engaging Hamilton faith groups in preparing their houses of worship as neighbourhood hubs for extreme weather preparedness.

Faith communities responding to mass disaster is far from a new concept and with the increasing severity of extreme weather events, emergency management departments are starting to look to a broader cross-section of faith and community-based organizations for support in all stages of the disaster sequence. Across North America, there are groups like Mennonites Disaster Relief, US Episcopal Relief & Development,  National Disaster Interfaith Network, and the New York Disaster Interfaith Service (NYDIS) doing this work.

Neighbours Helping Neighbours: The Lighthouse Project

In Brampton, where the 2013 ice storm left 20,000 homes without power for days and overwhelmed volunteer agencies, the Emergency Management Office, lead by Manager, Alain Normand, has set up a program that is currently engaging with 21 multi faith groups, to train them in emergency preparedness response. Looking to Brampton for leadership and mentoring, the new pilot, also called the Lighthouse Project, is a program between a number of groups including (Environment Hamilton, Faith & the Common Good and CREW Toronto) to create a community-based support infrastructure to enhance neighborhood resilience to extreme weather events in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Region.

At the end of the training, I must return home to share this learning with my network. I am looking for what can draw our worlds closer together. What are the overlaps, where the intersections?

So I focus on our shared commitment: taking care of people.

They are preparing themselves to care for people in the field — after disaster has struck — and how to respond in the recovery stage of a disaster. Our project is preparing houses of worship to engage more deeply and build stronger connections with their neighborhoods in order to take care of people before climate disaster strikes, as well as be a stop away from the disaster.

I learn from the chaplains that to care, we must seek to understand one another, because we will meet all kinds in the field.

Common Language: Resilience

To understand one another, we can find points of commonality such as a common language. However, I struggle to understand the militaristic language of emergency responders.  The use of military words in the context of caring strikes me as discordant: “waiting to be deployed” and following the “Incident Command System,” “span of control” and “chain of command” seem counterintuitive. But there must be a process. The chaplains are learning how to connect with the emergency response system and how not to be a hindrance. “Self deployment is one of the most dangerous things you can do.” Peter says. Without a process, we risk worsening the situation with our good intentions and putting people in harm’s way. Having a plan in place for who does what is key.

Resilience, on the other hand, is a word that l easily grasp. The chaplains talk about affected people being able to bounce back, to adapt. In terms of houses of worship and faith communities helping their neighbourhoods to be more resilient, we must first know our neighbours.

Documented experience from cities that have struggled through extremes of flooding, ice storms, drought and heat, shows that what’s central to making communities resilient is their social capital: the local residents and workers who organize before, during and following shocks and stresses. So who are our neighbours and how do we meet them?

As houses of worship, learning about the many different cultures builds relationships that can develop into networks of support and connections that we can draw upon when a disaster strikes. This is one way to strengthen the social infrastructure and the fabric of our communities and grow trust as the foundation for shared action.

“Spiritual care providers need to be open-minded to other people, caring for people who will not share your beliefs,” the facilitator, Peter reminds us.

Extreme weather hubs can be where minds meet, to exchange ideas and share information.

I am captivated by the Buddhist nun who describes how her spiritual practice seeks to view anything that happens with what she calls “detachment” — a very different perspective to say, how Christians might experience such situations. A Hindu chaplain reflects on how members of his community cultivate a resilient mindset in their daily lives. He tells us how he himself arrived in New York “with nothing but the clothes on his back.”

Peter draws our attention to the concept of Emotional and Spiritual Care (ESC), defined as attending to the emotional distress, psychological and spiritual needs of trauma affected persons through the caregivers presence, listening, words, crisis intervention or referal. ESC helps those affected draw upon their own emotional and spiritual resources in the midst of their pain — that is, fall back on their own resilience. “But we know that sometimes, people get into survival mode and just want the practical and the functional,” Peter points out. I think: that’s exactly where a prepared house of worship can support people by offering such solutions.

Climate Change & Emergency Response

I work hard to relate what I am learning back to what we aim to achieve, but I can’t help wondering — is there an elephant in the room or are people completely oblivious? Did I miss something? Why, in the case of extreme weather that is devastating communities the world over, is it not being called out for what it is: human-induced, climate change? Instead, they are sticking to “natural disasters.”

“Hurricane season like no other in memory,” they say. “In California, wildfires like never before.”

This is baffling to me. Is this the silo effect where groups focus within their boundaries, and don’t connect the dots?

Perhaps this is my gift: naming the link between extreme weather disaster and climate change.

After I bring it up, one of the chaplains approaches me during the break. “You made me think,” she says, curious now about Faith & the Common Good, and how we link climate and planetary care with religions. “Many people do not believe climate change is real.”


Evening, and feeling saturated for the day, I head out to an art show of Japanese American artist, Yayoi Kusama’s work of over fifty years. The lineup is insane, all around the block, with only 20 minutes until closing. Everyone, minus a couple of pushy men, waits patiently in orderly fashion. I am astounded by the interest in this show, and reflect on the many different interests that draw people to a place. It is art that is bringing them out in hordes, the delight, the fun, as opposed to something as serious as climate change, which people don’t seem to want to know about. Maybe there is something from the world of art that I can learn from to apply in my work? Something to think about as I immerse myself in the pieces.


Creating Welcoming Spaces

The next day, we have a new facilitator. Rev. Fred Meade is a retired pastor who serves as the Disaster Spiritual Care lead for the United Church of Christ (UCC) Disaster Ministries and as an American Red Cross chaplain. Fred introduces us to PCAID: Presence, Connection, Assessment, Intervention, Develop ongoing care plan. He assures that this approach will work in each phase of a disaster (warning/anticipation, impact/emergency rescue, aftermath/assessment, relief/remedy, short term recovery and long term recovery).

St. John's Lutheran Church, Hamilton

“Presence is a gift, given that a lot of people don’t have it,” Fred says. In the context of neighbourhood resilience and the role a faith group can take on, presence is the equivalence of a welcoming physical space. Connection is what we want above all, where we can do assessments be they knowing the risks and threats ahead of time, the evacuation routes, what systems are in place in the community to keep us safe. A place of worship could know all the levels of involvement and have all of that information at the ready and constantly updated to communicate with the public. Places of worship can create an environment of safety, security and familiarity for the community, well ahead of disaster.

Another idea occurs to me: perhaps places of worship could be centres of training for chaplains such as these? I am learning that preparing our communities to be more resilient is a collaboration, just as much as spiritual care is.


It’s been a month and a half since the training. My sister in Santa Barbara, California has had to evacuate her home twice with her family: first, because of the Thomas Fire, and more recently, because of the winter storm and the flash mudslides. At home, we’ve just come out of a deep freeze and are heading into another one.The world is getting smaller and smaller as the effects of climate change impact all our lives. The need for community resilience has never been more pressing.

Steps to preparing for extreme weather events as faith communities

Most disaster response is local. Disaster sites are generally multifaith and richly diverse spiritual environments. That’s why houses of worship could use emergency preparedness as a way to expand knowledge about different faith communities and the diversity of cultures.

Preparing ahead of time means that as faith community leaders you will understand diversity on a personal level as opposed to an academic level. You will be able to know ahead of time what the various religious needs are, such as customs, food preferences etc.

Remember, you are working as part of a team.

Know the threats: Risk assessment

That seems pretty obvious, but is it? Do we know if we are at risk for hurricanes, flooding, high temperatures? What are the evacuation routes, what systems are in place to keep us safe? Do we know how to shut off our water or gas if need be? What are the real risks, what are perceived?

Know levels of involvement

Check in with your municipality, Office of Emergency Management, Public Health etc.

Develop a Plan of Care

What do you need to do next? Is there anyone you need to call?

Educate yourself

Take FEMA’s Independent Study course, “The Role of Voluntary Agencies in Emergency Management.” www.training.fema.gov.

Things to consider

  • What is the most likely disaster that would happen in your community?
  • How would you prepare your faith community for disaster?
  • How would you help the larger community to prepare?
  • Do you have a list of local health providers and community partners? Establish and maintain contact with agencies, caregivers, key community members, businesses etc.
  • Do the neighbouring communities possess resources that can assist at this time? Do you have an adequate number of volunteers?
  • In what way do predominant religious expressions in the community need special considerations?
  • Does the community have a vision for itself distinct from the disaster?
  • What themes are prevalent in this community history? Are there previous challenges, setbacks, disasters?
  • Could your faith centre be a resource centre, shelter, point of distribution (POD), cooling/heating centre, a place to charge phones?
  • What sorts of things can you do as a faith community to keep people interested in emergency preparedness?



Check out the Faith & the Common Good’s extreme weather resilience project links:



Brampton Lighthouse Project:


CREW Toronto:



Faith & the Common Good has developed an Extreme Weather Toolkit for GTA Faith Communities that will help you think through how to develop and implement an emergency response plan. It was designed for Toronto area faith communities, but could easily be adapted to other locations.

Be a Ready Congregation: Tips from the National Disaster Interfaith Network


This link has amazing resources!

“So now we're wrestling with 'what does it mean to be the church here and now?' We're going to live into a new understanding, ways to be the church. We're going to receive mail for those who don't have homes. To offer our neighbors space to have meetings. As soon as we are up and fully functional, we want to have a free Sunday lunch, so our neighbors know there is a kind and loving place where they can come for a free meal and find space to recharge." Rev. Kris Bergstrom, pastor of Church of the Foothills in Ventura, Calif. Dec. 2017


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