USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Faithful Action

Current Environment and Need for Engagement

As the social safety net of the United States erodes, faith-communities often work to fill many of the unmet needs of their congregations and their surrounding communities on a day-to-day basis. They respond to public safety problems of gang violence by providing intervention programs. They bring hope and healing communities in times of distress, and operate food banks, shelters, clothing distribution. Congregations often see the effects of emerging societal trends, like the mortgage crisis, among their members and in their communities before they become public policy challenges. During natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and earthquakes, congregations can marshal or have the potential to marshal additional resources, human capital, and other support to meet the pressing challenges of their communities in these emergency situations. They respond because caring for people in need is intrinsic to all religious traditions. Yet, they typically work outside of any government agency and without public funding or preexisting coordinated efforts. Congregations may undertake these efforts on their own, through denominational associations, or through network ties that leaders have formed with other congregations and FBOs. Others operate with little formal connection to other congregations or community-based efforts and are not able to contribute to larger efforts beyond their own walls.

Over the past decade, there has been increasing interest among public officials to engage the faith-based sector. This increase in both desire and mandate to work with faith-communities has not been adequately supported with the requisite knowledge, cultural competencies, and religious literacy to deal with the complexities of the many different faith-communities and the resulting myriad of organizational expressions in the United States. In fact, many government efforts see congregations solely as locations from which to execute government initiatives, source individual volunteers, or perhaps provide shelter during an emergency. Congregations are not understood as a system with unique institutional attributes, substantial underutilized assets, and organizational partners that can be more fully harnessed in times of crisis.

Similarly, congregations across the religious and political spectrum are simultaneously interested in, and cautious about, engagement with public officials. While they work to meet the needs of their congregants and their surrounding communities, and in some cases may have a more global perspective, many remain wary of partnerships with public agencies because of legitimate concerns about government intrusion into the lives of their congregations, or historic experiences of partnerships gone awry.

However, if the sustainable involvement of congregations can be systematized, there is great potential to increase their engagement and effectiveness in disaster preparedness and response. Understanding the capacity and capabilities of congregations and envisioning what they might be able to do with more training and sustained support represents an important step. Addressing mutual concerns and closing the knowledge gap that exists between faith communities and government will also enhance partnerships. Addressing this critical link in the emergency management and public health emergency chain will enable congregations, FBOs, and government efforts to more effectively and efficiently work together during times of crisis.

As Peter Gudaitis, president of the National Disaster Interfaiths Network, said of
congregational disaster response:

Most [congregations] thought it was a vocational imperative. There was a crisis, people were suffering, and they wanted to respond…typically, faith communities, their houses of worship and their social service agencies perceive their roles as primary. They’re not necessarily first responders, but they certainly perceive themselves as tertiary responders. Also, they often see themselves as being able to advocate best for the unmet needs in the community, because they typically know the most disadvantaged, and they tend to have a high level of understanding of culture and language and theological competency, so they often are the appropriate liaison between government and community or between faith communities or between neighbors and faith communities…The challenge lies in the fact that most congregations do not take appropriate steps to get preparedness training or familiarize themselves with the structures that exist post-crisis.

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.