First responders, Faith and Trauma

Being prepared for post-disaster relief efforts

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    Blade photo illustration.

  • Blade photo illustration.
    Blade photo illustration.

    There's a lot of disaster and death in religious scripture. Unfortunately, destruction and fatalities are not relegated to sacred words from ancient times.

    A first responder’s mission of helping strangers is an important religious principle.
    A first responder’s mission of helping strangers is an important religious principle.

    The Rev. Johnny Holloway and Mark Kassouf know that very well. Through the Rural Domestic Preparedness Consortium, they travel the U.S. to train people of faith, first responders, and others in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) courses covering disaster planning and response. Their instruction relates to the aspect of helping the stranger, an important principle of religious life. The congregation looks out, giving service rather than holding one. And rather than funerals and farewells, the more immediate responsibilities of recovering remains and ministering to anxious or grieving loved ones are what religious leaders are called to take on.

    Apostle Holloway, senior executive pastor of Cup of Salvation Deliverance Church and Ministries in Durham, N.C., led Mobilizing Faith-Based Community Organizations in Preparing for Disaster, held in Wooster July 20. “We don’t know where, we don’t know when, but we know that [disasters] will happen, and the preparation for those disasters is what’s going to determine how difficult they are to overcome,” he said. FEMA works to involve the entire community in emergency management and recognizes that faith-based organizations have unique assets. Liaisons between faith-based and emergency management organizations in a community are important for recovery, Apostle Holloway said—plus, when faith leaders get calls about disaster, they'll know whom to contact.

    Joseph Villegas, director of the Wayne County Emergency Management Agency, is one of those contacts. He coordinated bringing the course to Wooster. His agency had not worked with faith-based agencies in past planning but, aware that churches and other religious organizations help in such ways as providing food and clothing, “a lot of times there’s no way to coordinate that with another faith based organization,” he said. As he's in charge of the master disaster plan, he wants to know who can help in what ways. Those helpers will likely include people from the church he attends, Heartland Christian Center in Wooster.

    The Rev. Evelyn Manzella, the priest of St. James Episcopal Church, was at the class “because I think it’s really important for everyone to be involved in the community.” Her church in downtown Wooster is in a poorer neighborhood, so St. James's outreach gives her “a big commitment to a lot of people who wouldn’t be invited to this table,” she said.

    Chief Jason Woodruff of the Apple Creek Police Department was there to represent Central Christian Church in Wooster, but he was valued in the class for his expertise as a police chief and volunteer firefighter. Central Christian recognized its need to develop an emergency plan, he said, which illustrated a point by Apostle Holloway: “If your church is not prepared for [its own] disaster, then your church is not prepared for a disaster outside of the church.”

    Mark Kassouf, rural domestic preparedness consortium instructor.
    Mark Kassouf, rural domestic preparedness consortium instructor.

    In Bowling Green Mr. Kassouf, who retired in November 2012 from his position with the Ohio Department of Health as the state mass fatality planner, taught Mass Fatalities Planning and Response for Rural Communities, sponsored by the state health department, August 9, to emergency medical technicians, nurses, coroners, and others. Mr. Kassouf addressed roles on teams to recover remains and why to have geographic distance between morgues and family assistance centers, but he also spoke about chaplains' roles in responding and helping when many deaths have taken place. And he stressed the importance of reverence and dignity when sometimes talk of “bodies” gets impersonal: “The respectful handling of the deceased, that is someone's loved one that you are dealing with and you want to treat them as you would a relative of yours,” he said.

    Retiring from a career that was often focused on death, Mr. Kassouf said that he could have played golf every day. But instead, “It's a passion of mine to make sure that in Ohio and throughout the country, we understand that this process is a vital one. It's been ignored so much.”

    Contact TK Barger @, 419-724-6278 or on Twitter @TK_Barger.