USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Faithful Action

Assets of Congregations

U.S. congregations number in excess of 345,000 making them the most ubiquitous institutions in all neighborhoods across the United States. In the five-county greater Los Angeles area, for example, there are more than 12,000 congregations.35  In many urban neighborhoods, there can be more congregations per square mile than liquor stores, gas stations, and banks combined. For example, the MacArthur Park neighborhood of Los Angeles registers 67 congregations in one square mile. Congregations range in size from small storefronts to large megachurches the size of small college campuses, with the overall average size of congregations in the U.S. being about 200 individual members.

In order to adequately understand the potential role that faith communities can play in the disaster response system, it is necessary to understand first that each faith community has a unique form of organizational and cultural life, and particular demographic dynamics. These unique forms provide a reservoir of resources that can be leveraged in emergencies, assuming they can be pre-identified, integrated into a risk communication system, trained, sustained, and then activated in appropriate ways. Congregations represent access to different language and cultural competencies, including the ability to reach different immigrant groups and generational groupings, from young to old. Congregations also include communication networks, whether phone trees or e-mail lists, within the communities where they are located, across the broader geographic region, and even across the nation and internationally. Not only do congregations have these competencies, they provide these services on a regular basis by serving as destinations for information and various social and community services. Finally, congregations often have relationships with media representatives and outlets, and many have proven to be adept at working with the ethnic, religious, and mainstream media in their different efforts.36

Furthermore, local congregations and FBOs are often integrated into the community. This identification imbues congregations with a dedication to serve their communities in times of need. Juliet Choi, former senior director of partner services for the American Red Cross says, “Churches can often get deeper into a community faster than secular rescue teams. There’s always a sense of comfort when you see someone who looks similar to you.”37  For example, in the Deep South, volunteers from the National Baptist Convention—one of the largest African-American Christian denominations in the country, with over five million members—are an essential link between victims of disaster and government disaster services.38

Governmental policies and procedures often exacerbate this need for community partners with local knowledge. During Katrina, both the Red Cross and FEMA used rotating teams consisting largely of outside volunteers, and the longer the emergency endured, a lack of knowledge about the local area became a problem.39  Familiarity with local areas and perceived legitimacy were keys to overcoming the distrust of severely traumatized individuals.40   Traditional responders, however, were typically unacquainted with local conditions, facilities, and services. Moreover, knowledge gained on the ground was lost as new teams rotated into the area.41  In addition, according to many responders, the rules seemed to change with each changing shift, creating confusion and frustration, and increasing a sense of insecurity when reassurance was critical. Even under the worst circumstances, when many human service agencies are damaged and inoperable, and therefore unavailable as referral sources, knowledge of the local topography and knowledge about how to navigate the local terrain is a critical advantage.42

In addition to being centers of these broader cultural, demographic and network resources, congregations and their members also include an exhaustive variety of human, material, and spatial resources. For example, while it may seem fairly obvious, congregations include many different sorts of individuals. These individuals represent many different competencies, from medical professionals to tradespeople, such as carpenters and plumbers, to caregivers whose life work is to provide for the daily needs of the physically or mentally challenged. Congregations also have specialized ministries that target unique issues, needs, or populations, which can be utilized as points of response in times of disasters, if they are adequately prepared beforehand. Congregations also maintain detailed membership lists that include addresses and contact information. This information, and the congregation’s ability to communicate with its members, can be leveraged to increase the response from congregation members. Finally, congregations have many transportation competencies, represented not only in the many buses, vans and car pools that they organize to get their members to services, but also the public transportation routes on which their members live. Thus, not only do they often have the means to transport people around their communities, they also have an intimate knowledge of the infrastructure in their communities.

The physical space that congregations occupy represents another form of congregational resources that can be utilized during emergencies. Congregations have buildings that can serve a variety of functions in disaster response, from local command centers to shelters for people who may need medical care and/or are displaced from their homes. Similarly, parking lots provide open space
for organizing resources, staging operations, or even to erect temporary housing for people. And, of course, congregations have kitchens that can be utilized to feed the people who may be temporarily housed there, for people in the neighborhood, and for disaster relief workers. Congregations also represent a potential pool of financial resources, not only as a source of donations, but as a trusted and trustworthy place through which funds might be raised for and/or distributed to the community.

Finally, congregations represent a significant and respected form of moral capital in times of crisis. Religious leaders are generally recognized as having the sort of moral authority that can be used to calm communities and provide a vision of hope when otherwise panic or unrest may be lurking, or to advocate for overlooked or ignored populations in need in the wake of an emergency or disaster. This is evidenced by the role that Rev. Cecil Murray played in the civil unrest that followed the verdict in the Rodney King trial in 1992. Rev. Murray was a regular presence in the news media during those several days, and his efforts, along with other faith community leaders he had organized, served to calm many in the city during the violence and looting. His efforts following the unrest went a long way towards healing the breach in the social contract in the days and months following the events of 1992.43  Further, this type of engagement with the community by religious leaders can help address issues related to “meaning making” and can serve as a buffer against long-term psychological consequences.

In order to mitigate, prepare, respond and recover from a disaster, those being served must have a level of trust in those communicating with them, providing relief for them, and directing them. As Eisenman, et al. (2007) argue, effective communication depends on whether the message recipient perceives the message source as trustworthy and believable.44  Thus, Philbin and Urban argue that faith-based community leaders can play an important role in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from disasters, because they are trusted leaders in the community. Trust plays a significant role in individual responses to crises and is critical to facilitating appropriate responses and insuring the safety of citizens during catastrophic situations.45

Silver and Wicke (2009) show that the power of local institutions, including FBOs, to mobilize, to calm, and to direct their own communities, may provide “a model and cause for reevaluation of the role of outside rescue agencies and current procedures during public health emergencies, disasters and extreme events.” Primary proximate social institutions pre-date the crisis, share a vested interest in the community, understand important cultural elements of the area, and will remain with the affected population long after the crisis has passed.46  Outside entities, including voluntary and care-giving organizations, on the other hand, are transient, unknown, and may be unable to appreciate the cultural intricacies of the community.47  This proves most true among the elderly population, minority populations, and rural, close-knit, and spatially isolated zones.

Faith communities and their leaders carry the ability to garner trust, and in crisis situations, people often look for figures they can rely on for information, communicate with, and follow. Further, faith community leaders often function in a “gatekeeper” capacity, particularly among more conservative groups and/or in rural areas. Philbin and Urban’s work suggests that vulnerable groups, with higher levels of distrust of authority figures, will turn to multiple sources for information, suggesting a multipronged approach to risk communication, preparation and recovery involving a variety of means for dissemination (print, electronic, broadcast, personal interaction) will be needed to insure that the information is consistent across sources. Religious leaders, because they are trusted, can serve an integral role in delivering critical information during times of crisis. When combined with the decline in public confidence in institutions such as the government and industry, Philbin and Urban recommend that public information officers (PIOs) consider more formally integrating risk communication principles and faith-based leaders into their strategic communication plans.

One model that takes this idea into account emerged from the aftermath of 9/11 and comes from the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH).48  In its efforts to better prepare for emergency situations, NYSDOH invested in free risk communication workshops to establish and enhance relationships among faith communities throughout the state.49  Through these workshops, NYSDOH hoped to take advantage of fundamental attributes that facilitate the delivery of emergency information to significant portions of communities.50   NYSDOH, with the Consortium for Risk and Crisis Communication, offered workshops with the following purposes: (1) Train faith community and health department representatives in risk communication practices and principles; (2) Offer an opportunity for the two groups to discuss ways to collaborate on public health emergency preparedness and response; and (3) Provide an opportunity to network together. This is but one model of how governmental bodies can consider leveraging the trust inherent in faith communities and their capacity to communicate.

Another tool that could be replicated and used to harness available resources are congregational assessment management databases, including the HOWCALM® system (House of Worship Communitywide Asset and Logistics Management). (Please see Appendix VI for an assessment survey based on HOWCALM.51) Developed in 2006 by New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS) in New York City, the HOWCALM system is a secure, user-friendly, web-based management tool that identifies and inventories the location, judicatory affiliation, physical assets and programmatic resources—as well as risk communication data for over 7,000 New York City houses of worship, religious schools, and faith-based service providers which can potentially activate and deploy in case of disaster. Since 2006, participating congregations have partnered with NYDIS to assist faith communities and disaster impacted families throughout the city to better respond and deploy their assets during disasters. The HOWCALM system includes three types of users:

  1. Congregations:  HOWCALM empowers congregations to enhance their level of preparedness and access to risk communication. Being a user and connecting to NYDIS allows congregation leaders to connect with emergency managers, public health initiatives, and other faith communities and build relationships to promote the levels of understanding and cooperation needed for resilience and effective responses to all-hazards.
  2. Faith Communities:  HOWCALM equips faith communities to enhance the level of preparedness for their houses of worship, schools, and service providers and conduct emergency planning for their community. Participation in HOWCALM also helps faith community and judicatory leaders connect with NYDIS, its partners, and their peers from other religious traditions and build relationships to promote the whole community understanding and cooperation needed for effective responses to all types of disaster.
  3. Emergency Management Agencies:  HOWCALM via NYDIS, equips emergency management and public health agencies with the information to communicate, coordinate, and cooperate, with NYC faith communities and houses of worship to accomplish their mission. By building those relationships, government can ensure that their resources and expertise are mobilized in ways that leverage the moral authority and cultural competency and religious literacy of local religious leaders.

Other Assets

Speed of response.52  During Katrina, government and national voluntary agencies organizations did not reach many areas for some time due to flood waters, damaged infrastructure, and overwhelming demand. In contrast, local organizations were already on the scene or close by. The combination of local presence, independence from bureaucratic constraints, and smaller size enabled these organizations to act quickly, saving lives and property.
Beyond the speed of their initial response, they are often among the last left in the recovery process following a disaster.

Independence.53  Many organizations, particularly smaller local ones, can successfully operate without government support or direction. The combination of independence from government direction and small size enables organizations to be agile and immediately responsive to human need.

Standing capability.54  Many organizations provide day-to-day care for those in need before any disaster strikes. They are already involved in community services of some type and are able to adapt to crisis conditions and increase their capacity to meet the increased demand. Social service case managers can transition into disaster case managers. Food banks for the homeless and needy are able to supply pop-up shelters with food. Counselors can address the needs of disaster victims.

Small scale.55  Smaller organizations, particularly shelters, are often responsive to evacuees, volunteers, and relief workers. Despite an emphasis on large facilities and service providers in government planning, small-scale efforts have been proven to be highly successful. During Katrina, smaller shelters located or quickly established in houses of worship (of all sizes and denominations), in Boys and Girls Clubs, in recreation halls, and in schools run by local community volunteers were able to address various issues, including personal hygiene, quality feeding, mental health and spiritual care, and family needs, more effectively than many larger shelters. These shelters enabled evacuees to get back on their feet, become more self-sufficient earlier, and leave the shelter better equipped. Shelter operators noted that smaller facilities and the community atmosphere they promoted contributed to psychological well-being.

Specialization.56  Many FBOs specialize in one or a few relief or recovery services. Specialization optimizes the contributions of organizations during a disaster. The major faith traditions (i.e., Buddhist, Christian, Jewish and Muslim) have chosen to specialize in certain aspects of disaster response and recovery, and there are different ways of categorizing these specializations. Hull (2006) notes specialization as a best practice in four functional areas: food, medical services, mental health and spiritual care, and physical reconstruction. The National VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) lists six specializations: case management, donations management, emotional and spiritual care, long-term recovery, mass care, and housing. To successfully engage congregations and other FBOs in the disaster preparation and response process, they should be typed by specialization. Identifying the groups that are willing and capable of contributing is an important component of emergency planning, particularly with the new FEMA emphasis on “whole community.”

Hunt (2006) describes how specialization works and looks in action on the ground. After Hurricane Katrina, many FBOs took on tasks that tapped into their long-standing expertise. The Salvation Army focused on getting water and ice to a devastated area within twelve hours.57  The Islamic Society of Central Florida opened its school as a shelter and feeding site, but also become a key financial contributor with money raised solely for charitable purposes.58  “We can’t do everything, but we are able to contribute,” said Bassem Chaaban, the society’s outreach director. “We looked at the things we could do and did them.”59  The Seventh-day Adventists used a similar process when they took on warehousing duties based on their more than decade-long experience of organizing and sorting through the overwhelming amount of donated clothes.60  Specialization requires a level of coordination amongst groups that is often difficult to meet without advance training, regular communication, and umbrella organizations. For example, the head of the Seventh-day Adventist program started a nonprofit agency (Apopka Agency) to focus on coordinating distribution points and direct needs to groups in the network.61

Partnering. Partnerships between organizations to meet complementary needs prove to be highly effective. For example, an FBO serves as a shelter, while a secular community-based organization (CBO) prepares meals and delivers them to the shelter. Partnering was a best practice noted in four functional areas: food, logistics management and services, children’s services, and case management.62

For agencies looking to partner with and enhance the ability for FBOs to prepare, respond and provide support in recovery, the above assets are a reliable indicator of effectiveness. Thus, agencies should identify and establish relationships with FBOs that have strong programs in the community, large worship spaces, kitchens or parking lots, and/or leaders with involvement in community activities. Agencies could also contact and interface with ministerial alliances, clergy councils, and interfaith boards/associations. This research also points to the fact that size is not a reliable indicator of success during times of crisis. Indicators that display community involvement are more important measures of disaster response capacity and capability, including such basic activities as officiating at funerals, participation in local government meetings, and attendance in religious study programs. These types of activities are all important factors for agencies looking to work with FBOs.

Yet, while congregations certainly provide a wealth of capabilities and assets, there are certain caveats to their ability to function effectively during a crisis. NDIN’s Peter Gudaitis says that the most frequent roles that congregations assume early in a crisis are offering hospitality (shelter, food, and clothing) or social services. Citing what happened in aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Gudaitis states the following:

[C]ongregations just started looking at what people’s unmet needs were and they didn’t consider how much money they were wasting because people could get those things for free, or that they were available through government disaster entitlement programs. So we heard stories of congregations buying people plane tickets or putting people in hotels or paying their rent, and all of those things the government provides for free after a disaster.

Thus, even though these types of contributions seemed like the right thing to do, congregations wasted their own limited resources by providing services that the clients would have otherwise received through the federal government. The challenge then is to engage and educate congregations and FBOs about their proper and most effective roles without jeopardizing their ability to continue on as organizations after the disaster has passed.

Spiritual Care. Another significant asset of congregations is their unique ability to provide social and moral support in the wake of a disaster. While congregations and FBOs are widely recognized for providing spiritual care, there are many lessons to learn about how to better equip them to play this role effectively and in collaboration with mental health providers.

Disasters may impact an individual’s religious and spiritual beliefs.63  Individuals and communities also have a well-documented tendency to turn to faith and religious leaders after a disaster.64  Even in an urban environment, such as New York City in the aftermath of 9/11, where many religions and cultures converge, affected persons still exhibit the desire to be comforted by religion. According to a national survey conducted after the 9/11 attacks, 90 percent of Americans turned to religion as a coping response to the trauma experienced.65   Similarly, 59 percent of New Yorkers surveyed following 9/11 said they preferred to receive support from a clergy or religious counselor, compared with 45 percent who sought out a physician, and 40 percent who sought a mental health professional for emotional support.66

Not only do affected populations turn to faith and religious leaders in times of crisis, spiritual care has been shown to have positive recovery aspects. Emerging research suggests that religious and spiritual responses, as well as clergy-mental health provider collaboration, may be beneficial in helping to buffer negative psychological reactions. Ai and colleagues (2005) surveyed 453 graduate and undergraduate students three months after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.67   They found that participants, who believed in diverse spiritual entities used various types of prayer for coping. Researchers found that spiritual support and positive attitudes mediated the effect of post-September 11.
Similarly, Lawson (2007) found that “unceasing communication with a Higher Power” assisted the respondents in gaining control over threatening events allowing them to exhibit courage and determination to cope with the dislocation of Katrina. Research with almost 600 Mississippi residents following Hurricane Katrina—primarily from Jewish and Christian backgrounds—found that positive religious and spiritual beliefs such as having a coherent religious coping strategies, religious support, and a meaning-making community, reduced the effects of resource loss—both material and relationship losses—and hurricane exposure (e.g., did they evacuate or not, personal injuries sustained, reported stress of hurricane experience) on post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, depression, and alcohol use.68  Similar findings have also been verified across numerous other disasters among people from diverse faith backgrounds, including the Oklahoma City bombing, and Midwest flood.69  Several additional studies suggest that what was important (e.g., what mediated negative mental and physical health outcomes following resource loss) was not how religious or spiritual a person was, rather, how one utilized their religion or spirituality.

Recipients of spiritual care include:70

  • First responders and recovery workers
  •  Law enforcement mortuary professionals, pathologists, body identification workers, etc.
  • Families of victims
  • Affected persons and communities

Spiritual care points of contact include:71

  • Disaster Scene: Trained chaplains offer quality appropriate spiritual care to both workers and families. Trained spiritual care workers can help control spontaneous volunteers who wish to offer inappropriate religious coercion.
  • Mortuary:  Chaplains can help work with the religious needs of medical and forensic personnel and provide appropriate rituals and local clergy when requested by families.
  • Ante-mortem Victim Information Collection:  Spiritual Caregivers can help both family members and information gatherers deal with the strain of working with grieving family members.
  • Family Assistance Center
  • Burial/Final Disposition:  Chaplains and local clergy can assist with culturally appropriate burial arrangements to the extent possible allowed by the circumstances of the disaster
  • Faith Community Liaison:  Chaplains offer one means of connecting FM officials and personnel with the broader religious institutions of the affected community.

The role of spiritual care providers often includes:72

  • Securing basic needs
  • Providing counseling73
  • Conducting needs assessments
  • Monitoring the rescue and recovery environment
  • Providing outreach and information
  • Delivering technical assistance, consultation, and training
  • Fostering resilience and recovery
  • Conducting triage and referral
  • Providing treatment
  • Providing a sense of safety and calm
  • Providing a sense of self and community efficacy and connectedness
  • Providing a sense of hope.

Many organizations and collaborations between clergy and mental health professionals have sought to develop best practices and programs that would strengthen response and recovery in disaster-prone areas, specifically regarding spiritual care. This area is important enough for  the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) to develop their “Spiritual Care Points of Consensus,” a document that established basic standards for addressing the spiritual needs of those who are directly impacted by a disaster, as well as for relief workers.74  The statement resulted from work by NVOAD personnel and representatives from more than twenty faith-based organizations, including Scientologists, Buddhists, Catholics, and other traditions.75   The document sets out ten points that outline the fundamentals of ethical emotional and spiritual care when dealing with survivors of catastrophes, including warning against inappropriate proselytizing or evangelizing in disaster zones, and against discrimination based on “culture, gender, age, sexual orientation, spiritual/religious practices and disability.”76

Brie Loskota is the former executive director (2016-2021) of the USC Center for Religion and Civil Culture.

Hebah Farrag was the assistant director of research of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture through 2023.

Richard Flory is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.