USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Faithful Action

Roles of Congregations

Polls show that during times of crisis, nearly 60 percent of Americans say they turn first to a religious leader for comfort and guidance.21  In the wake of crisis or disaster, it is often assumed that the government and first-responders have the largest and most important role to play. While structural mitigation often rests squarely on the shoulders of the public domain, the role of local primary social institutions cannot be underestimated in the response to a community crisis.22

Hull (2006) points to three major assumptions regarding the work of FBOs in the aftermath of Katrina.

  1. FBOs and NGOs augment government and American Red Cross response.
  2. Their impact, though beneficial, is not significant, at least not compared to the impact of government and the American Red Cross.
  3. Their contribution is limited to traditional areas of FBO and NGO service, such as mental health and spiritual services.

Each of these assumptions, however, is incorrect.23  Rather, the roles that FBOs play during times of crisis are much broader in reach, have a greater impact in the communities they serve, and have a long-term presence and effect. Hull (2006) found that during Katrina, FBOs and NGOs frequently performed at least ten major services and 33 sub-functions. While many view the role of FBOs and religious leaders only through the lens of spiritual care and counseling, the services they provide often reach far beyond the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of their flock and the community.

Among the other, generally unexpected services congregations and FBOs provided in the aftermath of Katrina included:24

  1. Shelter services
  2. Food services
  3. Medical services
  4. Personal hygiene services
  5. Mental health and spiritual support
  6. Physical reconstruction services
  7. Logistics management and services
  8. Transportation management and services
  9. Children’s services
  10. Case management services

The prevailing assumption is that FBOs and NGOs expand upon existing services (such as spiritual care) while extending to add a few emergency services such as providing shelter, food and water.25  However, it is more often the case that spontaneous networks will emerge, producing organizations with advanced technical capabilities, swarms of volunteers, facilities, and innovative ideas to respond to needs.26  For example, in response to Katrina, one church provided dialysis treatments for those in need of this essential medical treatment.27  Moreover, FBOs often provided services not only for evacuees, but also for relief workers and volunteers.28  “By hosting those who came into a community to rebuild and restore,” Hull (2006) explains, “FBOs and NGOs enabled communities to heal and return to a more normal condition.” Indeed, Patrick Dougherty, a former Red Cross employee and (at that time) the relief ministry leader at Calvary Chapel church in Burbank, California, says that in his work, feeding volunteers and official responders is as crucial as feeding those who have been directly affected by a disaster.

Faith-based organizations are effective for three broad reasons: first, their specific mission and strong motivation to be responsive to needs; second, their proximity to and familiarity with the communities they serve; third, their access, either directly or through networks, to unique resources and capabilities directly applicable to the types of services needed following a disaster.29  In addition to these three reasons, congregations also are effective because they explicitly address issues of personal meaning and the common existential questions that most survivors will grapple with.30

On the other hand, while congregations in the immediate vicinity of a disaster will most likely respond to the perceived needs of a community, this does not mean that they will do so as effectively as possible. Peter Gudaitis of NDIN describes the following:

[C]ongregations with no history of doing community service work during a disaster typically don’t always do very well. They perceive themselves as doing well because they don’t understand their work in the context of what’s going on community-wide, and this is one of the broader challenges for nonprofits and faith-based organizations in general. They tend to have a focused perception of what is right, and it’s not necessarily a best practice and it’s not necessarily coordinated with the broader community. And that, unfortunately, can cause congregations to do things that are not in the best interests of the public when it comes to sustainable disaster recovery.

In 2011, FEMA proposed to include the broadest range of community actors in disaster preparation, response and recovery, framing this as the “Whole Community” approach to emergency management. This shift in thinking is intended to increase individual and household preparedness by targeting communities as a whole, and utilizing congregations and faith-based organizations, among other community organizations, as an ideal means to reach entire communities and to strengthen their ability to prepare and respond to

The Whole Community approach is presented as a way for emergency managers and government officials to understand and assess the needs of local residents as well as the best ways in which to organize and strengthen their assets, capacities and interests.32  In theory, the approach is meant to engage the full capacity of local citizens, the private sector, nonprofit community organizations—including faith based organizations—and governmental agencies at all levels.33  Whole Community principles include:34

  • Understanding and meeting the actual needs of the whole community
  • Engaging and empowering all parts of the community
  • Strengthening what works well in communities on a daily basis
  • Understanding community complexity
  • Recognizing community capabilities and needs
  • Fostering relationships with community leaders
  • Building and maintaining partnerships
  • Empowering local action
  • Leveraging and strengthening social infrastructure, networks, and assets

The Whole Community theory is encouraging and inspiring, but the next step must be to match the rhetoric with specific actions and to involve the whole community in this process. Thus, while the report briefly mentions the importance of including faith-based organizations in this approach, it does not present a conceptual or operational method of reaching out to congregations and other faith groups. A future report should examine solutions for including religious minorities in these efforts to bring entire communities into the emergency management planning process.

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.