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Culture Q&A

Daniel Geraci

Compassion on call

Networking churches for disaster relief

Compassion on call

Daniel Geraci (Kevin Vandivier/Genesis Photos)

Daniel Geraci is the founder and executive director of the Austin Disaster Relief Network of 175-plus churches. ADRN, which celebrates its ninth birthday in March, deploys volunteers after floods, hurricanes, and other disasters. Here are edited excerpts of an interview that took place in the Olasky living room and includes questions posed by the 10 members of the World Journalism Institute’s ninth mid-career course.

What is ADRN’s purpose? To get the church to be like the Good Samaritan, to walk with families until they are back on their feet. God so loves the world and His church that He’s preparing the church to be the best asset when disaster strikes—not the one where the city says, “Stay away,” but the one that provokes a “We need these guys” response.

So you emphasize training. In times of disaster churches respond no matter what, but are they organized? Do they mobilize and connect? Are they trained in advance? And the answer is usually no. We are trying to turn that around. More than 7,000 trained volunteers are in our network now.

Austin is a blue dot in a red state, a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup. How did city officials initially respond to a Christian effort? The first thing we did was to go to city leaders and say, “How can we serve you?” Their response was, “Wow, no one has asked that. We would love for you to help run the shelters with the Red Cross and provide volunteers for them.”

‘God so loves the world and His church that He’s preparing the church to be the best asset when disaster strikes—the one that provokes a “We need these guys” response.’

How did Red Cross leaders respond? Some major fear. They thought we would raise up maybe 50 volunteers and suddenly we had 800 in three months. They were nervous that we would become an in-your-face Jesus freak group, the second disaster in a time of disaster.

You had ground rules for volunteers? We say: You might want to share a testimony, but you should not do that in a time of stress. Listen to their testimony, because if they don’t share it they won’t be able to pull themselves out of their trauma. Then we can meet not only physical needs but also emotional needs and, most importantly, spiritual needs.

Do people tend to question God’s goodness? In disaster we see so many people saying, “Why did God do this to me?” Some are Christians and they’re falling apart. Their house is collapsing, so we hope to help Christians have legs like pillars of marble, as the Song of Solomon says. You cannot push over a pillar of marble.

What’s the most important thing for people to say? What’s the most important thing for people not to say? On the emotional side of it—don’t say things like “time will heal all” and “let me tell you what happened to me.” They want you to listen. So we just say: “duct tape.” Put a piece of duct tape over your mouth and just listen.

But you don’t have to back off because of governmental pressure? No government loans? There are too many strings attached. We are not going to cut the name of Jesus out. We’re also not going to batter a person. One woman called me and said someone in a yellow shirt told her she would go to hell if she didn’t give her life right now to the Lord—a complete trying-to-convert-her-when-she’s-traumatized. It wasn’t our yellow shirt. We weren’t even deployed in that area. We have identity with badging and a credential that says, I’m background checked, I’m not a sex offender, here’s my training. That’s huge with the city, and our training cuts off these problems.

What if a volunteer goes rogue? It’s only happened once, I think. One shepherd was a bit too pushy with survivors, trying to get them to attend a church. We had to talk to him.

You have two different kinds of volunteers. To be a counselor you have to sign a Christian statement of faith, but to work in the warehouse or other places you don’t have to? Right: Community volunteers and ADRN volunteers are two separate types. The ADRN volunteers sign a statement of faith. The community volunteers have phenomenal opportunities to help in the warehouse and thrift store.

You have a thoroughly Biblical statement of faith. In Austin, how do some opponents of Christianity tolerate that? I asked that same question. It’s the goodness of God, and thousands of volunteers helping. One city of Austin leader has had people say, “Why are you using those guys?” He answered, “Until I see you or somebody else do what they do, we’re going to use them.”

What about within the often-fractious Christian community: How do all these churches and pastors cooperate? We don’t ask each other what church we attend. Our focus is Jesus and the work He’s asked us to do.

Are there times when things did not fall into place, and then what did you do? I loved doing Port Arthur, Texas, which Harvey devastated. We bused out 1,000 volunteers in 20 buses. We needed food and trucks, and not until the last minute did those come in. Lots of prayer.

What kinds of training should every Christian have? Two kinds, both nationally and internationally recognized. First, Community Emergency Response Team training. That’s physical first aid, how to do triage, all those things that are important if something happens across your street or in a terrorist attack. The second kind is Critical Incident Stress Management training, which gives the emotional tenets: how to pull people out of a level 10 trauma so that in 30-40 minutes they could be at level 1.

What do you want people to read? When Helping Hurts is a great book that we encourage shepherds to read. New people doing ministry for the first time have a definite pull toward a messiah complex: You’re the messiah, you’ll help out on every single thing a person has. Those who try to do it all burn themselves out.

Are all churches, including Catholic ones, welcome? Everyone has been welcome from the Christian church perspective. Many volunteers are Catholic, and we’ve had lots of meetings. It still feels very Protestant and makes them nervous, but they are welcome.

Our readers probably know about organizations like Samaritan’s Purse and the denomination-wide Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, but what cross-denomination disaster relief networks of churches exist in big cities? It looks like we are the only one that functions as we do with more than 175 churches, and training people in advance so when disaster strikes they are ready to mobilize.

Do you accumulate survivors’ tales? Here’s one: Vandals tear down a stop sign in a 72-year-old woman’s neighborhood. She makes calls and gets it up again. They tear it down again. She says to the city, “This time I want you make it the strongest stop sign you’ve ever put in.” The city did.

And then … When the Memorial Day flood comes she goes out the door to see what’s going on. A 5-foot wall of water carries her down the street. She’s 72 years old. Guess what she hangs on to? The stop sign.

She said, “I knew from that moment even though the water was up to my neck God was involved and I was going to be safe.”