Disasters do not occur in a secular vacuum. The impact of a disaster on the lives of individuals and the communities in which they live must be understood and responded to within the spiritual, social and cultural context in which they occur.
America, a nation of immigrants, is the most religiously diverse country in the world.It is multi-religious, multi-cultural, and multi-linguistic. Since the Immigration Act of 1965 which eliminated the quotas linked to national origin, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and believers of virtually all the world’s religions have arrived here,altering the ever evolving religious landscape of America. Members of the world’s religions live not just on the other side of the world but in our neighborhoods.
In times of crisis and disaster this diversity requires emergency management, and mental and behavior health professionals, to implement plans and protocols that ensure that the whole community receives services that reflect a working knowledge of the religious and cultural background and beliefs of those in need. This is as crucial for all responders as it is for survivors impacted by the disaster.
Emergency managers and their mental health and behavioral health partners are increasingly involved in providing crisis response within multicultural, multi-religious, multi-linguistic communities, emphasizing the importance of response plans that are religiously literate and competent. Thus, those who are committed to enhancing their religious literacy and competency skills are more likely to be effective caregivers to the whole community.
Recent disasters and public health emergencies including Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike, the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, the Joplin Tornado, wildfires in numerous states, and the recent shooting at a Sikh Gurdwara (temple) showcase the ability of communities to respond broadly to a disaster. These events even more visibly demonstrate the need for behavioral and mental health response plans that integrate a respect for, and understanding of, common standards of disaster spiritual care like those expressed in the National VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) Disaster Spiritual Care Point of Consensus.
A recent survey of NCSP (Nationally Certified School Psychologist) practitioners found that there is limited awareness among school psychologists of how student diversity influences the provision of crisis intervention services. In actuality, culture and religion influence how a threat or disaster is perceived, how individuals interpret the meaning of crisis, and how individuals and communities express reactions to disaster.
Step one in developing effective religiously competent disaster mental health response training and plans required to meet the needs of our diverse cultural and religious landscape is to define the terms of the conversation. Religious Literacy is defined as a basic understanding of the history, sacred texts, beliefs, rituals, and current manifestations of multiple faith traditions, AND the ability to understand the intersection of religions and social/political/cultural life through multiple lenses.
Religious Competency is defined as knowing how to navigate and engage each faith community as a trusted, knowledgeable and effective partner.
One of the best resources for acquiring both religious literacy and competency is for those individuals charged with creating a competent disaster response plan to engage, and work with all faith communities within one’s jurisdiction. It goes without saying that, the best source of information on the cultural and religious needs of a community are the religious leaders that serve the jurisdiction’s congregations and faith communities.
Faith communities have proven their willingness and ability to serve the unmet needs of their own congregations as well as the general public in times of crisis. Their knowledge of the communities they serve, and the trust placed in them by the American public allows religious leaders to play a unique role in all phases of the disaster life cycle.
In addition, the National Disaster Interfaiths Network (NDIN) and the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture (CRCC) have formed a unique partnership to study the strategies necessary for state and local government agencies, especially offices of emergency management and public health preparedness, to engage and build sustainable relationships with faith communities in order to meet the needs of the whole community. Together they have developed resources and trainings, an extensive library of best practices and other services designed to help emergency managers, public health preparedness managers, disaster mental health providers, and other caregivers to develop religiously literate and competent disaster response plans and training programs. In 2012, they published an extensive report, Faithful Action Working with Religious Groups in Disaster Planning, Response and Recovery, which details an enormous amounts of resources and strategies available for faith-based organizations to employ in the event of a disaster.
Beyond mere political correctness, developing this kind of capability ensures religiously competent disaster response plans, protocols and trainings along with the a process that builds the trust necessary to effectively meet the mental health needs of the whole community in times of disaster.
Peter Gudaitis is a contributing fellow with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.