USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Faithful Action

Barriers to Public Agencies and Faith Communities Working Together

Congregations and FBOs often experience barriers to working with government. These barriers may be due to the characteristics of a particular faith group, or due to the lack of religious literacy or other limitations of public agencies. At times, FBOs and public agencies exhibit suspicion regarding any formalized relationship with each other because of issues related to the separation of church and state. This may be the result of a two-way lack of contact between the groups or a mutual lack of knowledge. Potential partners could also be wary due to previous experience, or because of theological or political ideas. In some cases, congregations and FBOs are wary of creating relationships with public agencies because this would mean exposing themselves to increased scrutiny on various local and statewide zoning and access laws. More specifically to disaster work, however, the work of congregations and FBOs is often limited by different governmental shortcomings. These issues fall within the generally accepted role of government and government agencies following a disaster.77  For example, Hull (2006) found that his interview subjects believed that the impact of FBOs and NGOs during a disaster would be heightened that if the government could address the following limitations and challenges.

Problems with access and credentialing.78  Faith-based organizations, particularly local ones, often have difficulty with physical access to disaster areas and associated activities. Without government-issued credentials identifying them as serving in some official capacity, they find themselves blocked from delivering resources and services in mass care settings. This is an issue for smaller FBOs that are not recognized at law enforcement and military checkpoints. In addition, spiritual care providers are often not allowed access to some shelters because of credentialing issues. While this rightly restricts access to appropriately credentialed personnel, this presents a primary limitation and challenge in three functional areas for FBOs: mental health and spiritual support, logistics management and services, and transportation management and services.

Inadequate training and experience.79  The great geographic scale of destruction and the intensity of Hurricane Katrina, combined with the perception that government and organizations like the Red Cross could not take care of all of the resulting problems, prompted action by many local organizations that had never served in a disaster relief capacity. Despite their lack of experience, these FBOs became, among other things, shelter operators, builders, case managers, caregivers, and providers of shelter, food, and medicine. Although their effectiveness improved quickly, their lack of initial training and experience proved to be a challenge. Those organizations with prior training initially fared much better than those who had none. Training and experience are limitations and challenges in three functional areas: shelter, medical services, and physical reconstruction services that need to be addressed if public agencies expect greater and more skilled participation from congregations and FBOs in disasters and other emergencies.

Unanticipated needs for long-term routine services.80  Government agencies and other responders did not anticipate the needs of evacuees following the initial disaster response, particularly in an event as large and sustained as Hurricane Katrina. For example, although FEMA now mandates transportation services for evacuees, at the time of Hurricane Katrina, transportation was not provided. Long-term routine needs are overlooked or are inadequately addressed in six functional areas: shelter, mental health and spiritual support, physical reconstruction of infrastructure and housing, transportation, waste management and sanitation, children’s services, and case management of those who have been affected by the disaster.

Lack of Trust. Because congregations tap particular populations and language groups, and they each have their own historic relationship with public agencies, they may tend to avoid outreach by government agencies. Issues such as those noted above, e.g., revealing too much information about themselves and their buildings and programs, may work against efforts to get congregations into relationships with city, county or state agencies. If trust underlies most of these relationships, then it may be unrealistic for government agencies to assume that they are regarded as a trusted entity when working with different faith groups. Researchers from CRCC have found that there is a significant amount of distrust on the part of religious groups, especially when asked specific questions about their buildings, programs and capabilities.81

Confused by Government Agencies. Beyond the trust factor, there are often more practical issues that keep congregations from approaching government entities. For example, Jamie Aten, co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, describes responses to interviews he conducted with churches in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina:

Within a number of different churches that we surveyed, the attendees reported seeking out help from clergy and their faith community overall before seeking government help. One of the reasons that we hypothesize is that some were coming from lower socioeconomic status or maybe areas that were marginalized, and therefore it made it harder to get to government help and vice versa.

Peter Gudaitis suggests that it is often confusing for congregations and FBOs to work with government agencies:

When we’re talking about [government and disaster response], we’re talking about emergency managers, first responders, law enforcement, public health, we’re talking about this gamut of government leaders, not just emergency managers or public health emergency officials. There’s this huge swath of government agencies that you end up working with in a disaster. For instance, the Small Business Administration is who manages housing loans after a disaster. Then you have FEMA, HUD, the CDC, Health and Human Services. You have all these unknown federal agencies, and it’s not just your local emergency managers, which I think is one of the challenges on the faith community side.

Lack of Religious Literacy. Government agencies often lack adequate and accurate knowledge of faith community groups, how they operate, and how best to approach them. Gudaitis describes the following situation:

A lot of the people in government are religious, but in general, government agencies don’t tend to have a lot of competency in working with faith communities that are not mainstream, mainline, and represent the majority of the population…. You have government leaders that understand politics, but they don’t understand the people, their religious structures, their theology, their culture.

In addition to the general lack of understanding faith communities, what they believe, and how that may impact their willingness and ability to act in a disaster, are other, more practical issues related to what congregations and FBOs can actually do in disaster situations. Gudaitis, for example, says that government organizations typically lack the basic operational knowledge of the faith community such as whether they, by virtue of their internal organizational authority structures, can act without specific permission from key religious authorities. The government, in general, regards the faith community as a self-sustaining resource that can be tapped at will in a disaster. Thus, government agencies must gather and institutionalize in their own organizational structures basic competencies such as understanding religious groups, including their lines of authority and the types of resources that might be mobilized in a disaster.

Working With Faith Communities

Barriers to public agencies working with groups within the faith community are, in many ways, similar to the barriers that faith groups experience with public agencies. For example, there may be a general suspicion of faith groups and their motives, and an uncertainty about what their abilities to act in disaster situations. Further, as noted above, a lack of contact and/or knowledge of faith groups makes it easier to avoid working with them. Finally, public agencies and officials may have inaccurate assumptions about the capacity of congregations and FBOs. For example, officials may assume that a congregation’s pastoral leadership can be approached in a fairly easy manner so as to access their resources. However, it is important to note that large numbers of congregational leaders are bi-vocational; their role is only one job that they maintain, and it may not actually pay them much, if any, salary. This bi-vocational role is a particularly prominent characteristic of congregational leaders in communities that are typically most at risk in a disaster. On a practical level, bi-vocational religious leaders find it difficult to attend important informational meetings and trainings related to disaster preparedness and response that are more often than not, held on weekdays during work hours. Peter Gudaitis observes, “over and over, emergency management, the Red Cross, even VOADs offer most … conferences and meetings during the middle of the week during the middle of the work day.”

Proselytizing and Preferential Treatment. One fear that contributes to the hesitancy to financially support faith-based groups involves both perceived, or actual, hidden religious agendas. The fear of proselytizing, as well as preferential service for fellow believers, runs deep in secular communities and organizations. For example, one denominational disaster relief website listed “Professions of Faith” and four other evangelism categories prior to reporting other direct services on its annual activity report.

2012 Activity Reported to Date82
Professions of Faith    34
Gospel Presentations    346
Chaplaincy Contacts    753
Ministry Contacts    2,261
Other Decisions    10
Volunteer Days    3,348
Meals Prepared    42,729
Chainsaw Jobs    485
Mudout Jobs    1
Fire Cleanup/Debris Removal    141
Repair/Roofing Jobs    33
Showers    803
Laundry Loads    291
Children Cared For    203

This agency is a signatory of the National VOAD “Points of Consensus on Emotional and Spiritual Care,” which prohibits member organizations from such activity:

People impacted by disaster and trauma are vulnerable. There is an imbalance of power between disaster responders and those receiving care. To avoid exploiting that imbalance, spiritual care providers refrain from using their position, influence, knowledge or professional affiliation for unfair advantage or for personal, organizational or agency gain.

Disaster response will not be used to further a particular political or religious perspective or cause—response will be carried out according to the need of individuals, families and communities. The promise, delivery, or distribution of assistance will not be tied to the embracing or acceptance of a particular political or religious creed.83

Thus, despite the prohibition by the National VOAD agreements, the agency openly includes religious conversions as one of their measures of success, suggesting efforts at proselytizing can even be a problem with organizations that have signed agreements to refrain from such activities.

At times, houses of worship are accused of providing their own members with preferential treatment. De Vita and Kramer (2008) noted one church-based group that attempted to serve its members first by creating a tracking system to identify members and prioritize their service. With regard to the same issue, a public agency that became a conduit for donations routed significant private donations to a local faith-based organization because the director believed that pastors were best suited to identify where services were needed.84

Another organization alleged that no one was given religious services unless requested, but a staff member in the same organization reported praying with everyone receiving assistance.85  Some fear that certain populations, such as the LGBTQ community, may not be assisted or may receive biased treatment. Some have highlighted how after Hurricane Katrina, homophobia blew in.86  LGBTQ
evacuees and their families faced discrimination at the hands of more conservative faith-based relief organizations based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or HIV status.87  “Tragedy does not discriminate and neither should relief agencies,” stated Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, in a news release in 2005.88

Unfortunately, some faith-based groups do combine proselytizing with relief work, resulting in ethical dilemmas that are rarely discussed in the literature.89  Jessica Powers, a Red Cross volunteer from New York who managed the feeding operation in conjunction with the Southern Baptist group in New Orleans, recalls that  a volunteer riding along with the Red Cross on a disaster mission in Louisiana was proselytizing victims.90  “I had to say to him that the Red Cross is a humanitarian organization, and one of our positions is neutrality,” she said. Severson (2011) profiled a couple that views spreading the word about Jesus Christ as an essential reason that they repeatedly volunteer in disaster zones.91

In a disaster setting, people are more open—perhaps vulnerable is a better word—to such a message. “You have an opportunity to tell people that the Lord loves you,” the husband said. “When you hand someone food when they’re hungry, the door’s open.”92

These practices are problematic for several reasons. Deciding needs or allocating aid based on potential of proselytizing is discriminatory, unjust, and a misuse of funds. While some argue that proselytizing (such as prayer) combined with relief and assistance improves spiritual wellbeing and overall benefit, it often has the opposite effect of creating doubt and mistrust among vulnerable groups.93  The process of proselytizing begins by creating doubt or dissonance in existing beliefs or faiths.94  During this phase, the spiritual wellbeing (and therefore the health) of the recipient population may decline.95  Therefore, as Jayasinghe (2007) has shown, proselytizing work in the aftermath of a disaster could worsen wellbeing in an individual or of a community already undergoing immense hardships. In response to these kinds of experiences, in 2009, National VOAD adopted the “Emotional and Spiritual Care Points of Consensus”  to guide for all FBOs involved in disaster preparation and relief efforts.96

Misplaced Faith. If the determination to spread faith is one limitation of religion during a crisis, another is the determination of faith to stay the course. Media reports have profiled families and communities that refuse to evacuate, despite orders, based on a belief that a higher power will save them. In Texas, during Hurricane Ike, roughly 90,000 persons in three counties ignored calls to leave, citing faith and fate.97  The choice to stay—always questionable and sometimes fatal—was an especially curious one to make so close to Galveston, site of a 1900 storm that killed at least 6,000 people, more than any other natural disaster in U.S. history.98  Clarence Romas, a 55-year-old handyman, said he would ride out the storm in his downstairs apartment with friends.99  Ignoring a “certain death” warning “puts a little fear in my heart, but what’s gonna happen is gonna happen,” he said.100

Jamie Aten of Wheaton College gave an example of the potentially negative side of strong faith commitments within a religious community. Aten described a visit to one Mississippi faith community: “The religious leader got up and one of the final things he said was, ‘If you leave or you evacuate, it’s because you do not have enough faith in God.’” At the same time, Aten says that this particular community was very connected to the broader community and they had programs that could contribute to the disaster response process. Thus, deficits in one area should not exclude groups from other outreach efforts. Aten says that not all faith communities can be approached in the same way and should not be expected to respond in the same way. Aten describes the most fruitful approach:

Identify what it is they do well and leverage the skill sets that they already have. If you can bring multiple groups to the table and one is very strong in working with children and others with elderly, they’re going to be able to contribute differently. And if you can leverage that, capture that, by engaging them, like you’re saying, on other civic issues, when a disaster comes, you can begin filtering it through the mechanisms that are already in place…this also helps with sustainability of the intervention being carried out.

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.