Extreme Ministry: Life as a Crisis Responder

Published on: October 10, 2016

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Today, somewhere in the world, a minister will receive an unexpected and perhaps deeply distressing call for help. It doesn’t matter the time or the place, whether the minister is deep in sleep, or shopping for groceries. When a member of our spiritual or local community cries out for comfort, we center ourselves, open to the moment—fully present and fully engaged—and answer the call. This is part and parcel of the life that has chosen us—a life that asks everything, and yet, at the same time, gives everything. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and yet, several years ago, I knew that I was ready to take on an even more challenging response to humanity’s cries for help.

That is why, when I was invited to take the intensive training to become a crisis responder for the state of Ohio and as a national responder as well, I said, “Absolutely! Where do I sign up?” Even though, at the time, I may have been somewhat naive to the enormous responsibility I was about to undertake, my response came from a desire to serve an expanded community that would touch more lives and bring the healing message of Unity out into the world. I heard a call within me so deep that I could not help but answer.


Why Crisis?

In my own journey of healing and awakening, I came to a point where I knew that the trauma and crisis I had experienced in my history could actually be of benefit to those who were facing similar situations in their lives right now. My mantra became, “Let me turn away from an inhumane past, and extend my hand outward to those that need help across the bridge from pain and suffering to a life filled with meaning and joy.” This decision has allowed me to take something that was quite ugly and create real beauty from it; and in the process, it lost its power and hold over me.

What Do Crisis Responders Do?

Our teams are not first responders, and as much as possible, we do not enter the event until it has become reasonably safe. Although our safety cannot be guaranteed, we are trained to be aware of the warning signs of impending danger, and we are often surrounded by undercover detectives, immigration control officers, medical experts, police officers and SWAT teams. In the event of a national disaster, like the attacks on the World Trade Center, hurricane Katrina, the Orlando incident, the fires in California and others, we will serve the affected communities, but we will also serve the needs of the first responders who are usually as traumatized as the victims themselves.

Here is an example of the very sobering work that we do. On April 22, 2016, in southern Ohio, eight members of the same family were murdered on the same evening in three different locations. It was a state of emergency for an entire community, and we were called in by the Bureau of Criminal Investigation to assist in the management of the scene. Our role was to assist at the funeral home supporting 500 frightened people who were mourning the loss of their friends and acquaintances. Our work was to greeting each person who had come to the gathering with love and compassion; aiding in their comfort by listening, holding hands, hugging those who weep, and offering words of comfort. In crisis responses, our work is to be a compassionate and stable presence for people who are overcome with shock and disbelief—not to investigate crimes.

Because of the heavy and secretive infiltration of media, we were asked to come in casual clothing without our usual identification. We were also instructed that we were not to enter into dialog with anyone about the murders, offer our opinion, or share information we had overheard.

Peg Johnson, left, Fran Halm, David Dickerson, and Kathleen McKenna of the Ohio Crisis Response Team walk back to the church after assisting with the funerals for the Rhoden family.

Members of the Ohio Crisis Response Team walk back to the church after assisting with the funerals for the Rhoden family.

How Does One Handle the Challenges?

Before entering into this type of service there are a few questions that need to be addressed.

  1. Are you sufficiently healed from your own wounds so that they do not interfere with the assistance you are called to offer?
  2. Can you stand to observe firsthand the scene of a crime or a natural disaster in order to understand the amount of loss, confusion, fear and pain that others have actually lived through?
  3. Can you self-monitor? Are you too close to the situation? For instance, if you are in the LGBTQ community in Orlando and you want to help, you must first realize that you are actually one of those affected, and then, be willing to let yourself receive compassionate care while allowing other trained responders to take over the role of responder for you.
  4. Do you have a support system beyond the required debriefing to work with you when troubling feelings arise days, even months, later?
  5. Are you aware of the term “Compassion Fatigue,” and can you recognize it when it occurs in yourself or others?
  6. Are you willing to say no to a request for you to respond when it interferes with your work as a minister? Are you willing to say yes and allow others to support your daily work while you take time out to serve the people of this country?

How Do I Get Involved?

If this type of service interests you, I invite you to look into the many ways to respond to a crisis, and research the many organizations that need your support. I choose to serve as a member and trainer for NOVA (National Organization for Victims Assistance) and OCRT (Ohio Crisis Response Team). Both organizations are funded by the government under FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and we use a particular type of response that varies from other helping organizations such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

If you are interested in bringing NOVA training to an area near you, or want to host a training, contact 800.879.6682 (800-TRY-NOVA) and they will assist you in becoming a responder. Even if this is not your calling, your prayers, financial support, shelter, food, clothing, toys, and necessities are always welcome in any emergency of overwhelming magnitude.

Kathleen McKenna
Rev Kathleen McKenna serves Unity of Harrisburg, PA. She is a National Crisis Responder Minister/Chaplain under FEMA and NOVA, and a team member and trainer for the Ohio Crisis Response Team. She founded the first New Thought Regional Music Conference, and served on ministry teams for UWM.

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  • Ellen Debenport

    Thanks, Kathleen, for the work you do and for sharing it here. I had wondered whether Unity ministers were ever on the scene at disasters.