An emergency or natural disaster can strike anywhere, at any time. If disaster strikes in your community, are you prepared? In the last five years, Unity Spiritual Center in the Rockies, Colorado Springs, Colo., has encountered several emergency situations that have forced us to learn what our role is during a time of crisis. Here are the highlights:
- Less than a month after I answered the call to serve the community, we had a cold spell that broke 100-year records. It froze several pipes in our building and when the pipes thawed, they broke. Half of our building was flooded. Despite the damage and inconvenience it caused, it was the impact of the deep cold on our membership that required our full attention. People were unable to drive to the store for food and supplies. Some were without heat—and others were injured from ice-induced car accidents or from slipping on the ice that covered everything.
- Less than a year later, the “Waldo Canyon Fire” struck our community. This rare and unusual forest fire caused the evacuation of over 32,000 residents in Colorado Springs and 346 homes were destroyed. More than the physical damage it caused, this fire scared people who were accustomed to seeing smoke plumes in the mountains to the west of the city, but had never seen the actual flames come over the ridge and down into local neighborhoods. More than half of our spiritual community members were amongst those who were evacuated, and a few of our members even lost their homes.
- A year later, fire struck again—this time on the other side of town. The “Black Forest Fire” destroyed nearly 500 homes and caused more than 38,000 people to be evacuated. In addition to those directly affected, the entire city responded in a posttraumatic way, to the smell of smoke that had become so familiar the year before.
- When the fires were over, the floods came. Rain that had previously nourished the flora and fauna in the foothills above the city had nothing to hold it back. It rolled, unencumbered, down into the same neighborhoods that had been affected by the fires. Flash flooding washed away cars and took the lives of several people. Waterways spilled over, and businesses filled with mud and silt. People were evacuated—again.
At the risk of spouting clichés, “hindsight is 20/20” and “I wish I knew then what I know now.” In case you are ever faced with a crisis or natural disaster, here are a few things I learned that might be helpful to you:
- Everyone is affected. Whether directly impacted or not, the majority of people respond to a disaster with fear. Fear is contagious and spreads quickly because people feel vulnerable and exposed, realizing how close they came to an unsafe condition.
- Empowered people feel less afraid. The way to help people get over fear is to put them into action helping those in need. When a person is helping another, he or she feels strong and capable of making a difference. Fear dissolves and is replaced by tenacity and courage.
- No matter how old someone is, or what his or her personal life situation might be, there is always a way to help. For example, every single person, no matter their personal circumstance, can pray for those who have been affected. Donations of food and clothing can be collected and delivered where needed, teams of volunteers can be coordinated, and the community’s building can be used to provide support. In our case, we collaborated with “Acupuncturists Without Borders” and offered a free acupuncture stress-release treatment for anyone who wanted it. Volunteers served food, greeted people, and made our spiritual center warm and welcoming.
- People need to talk about the situation. The impact of fires, floods or any natural disaster can last a long time. For weeks, during our Sunday services, we talked about what was happening, who was still being affected, and how we could help. We stayed engaged. I was amazed at the number of new people who attended. Many of them shared with us that their own spiritual communities were not talking about the disaster any longer, much less doing anything to help others. (See item 2—People overcome fear by feeling empowered to make a difference.)
- Trauma of any kind can trigger older, deep-seated trauma. The need for pastoral counseling was a bit overwhelming. I kept hearing the same sentence over and over again: “I don’t know why this old issue is coming up now.” It was helpful to be able to explain to people that a feeling of fear or danger can cause old memories of similar feelings to emerge.
- Caretakers need support. As a minister, the demand for my time and energy was exhausting. Every counselor, healer, and emergency responder I knew was running on overwhelm. At one point, we brought in Dr Clarissa Pinkola-Estes. Best known as the author of Women Who Run with the Wolves, Dr. Estes is also a brilliant psychologist who specializes in emergency response techniques. We hosted a free event for caretakers, inviting them to come and get their batteries recharged. Dr Estes reminded us to take care of ourselves and gave us new tools for expending less energy while being more effective in our efforts to help those in need.
- Plan ahead. At one point, during the first fire, we were put on evacuation alert. Potentially facing several weeks of being unable to enter our building, we had to quickly consider what needed to be gathered in case we had to leave suddenly. Insurance documents, membership lists, historical papers and photos, board meeting minutes, deeds and mortgage documents, computers and backup equipment, as well as Sunday service supplies that could be used off-site are just a few of the items that we packed. I’ve learned that it’s valuable to make a checklist of what you would need to take from your building in case of a disaster. Make sure those items are easy to locate and access.
- Finally, in the face of an emergency, be sure to take advantage of the services and support offered by Unity Worldwide Ministries (UWM). During the above-mentioned events, we were supported through ongoing prayer from Silent Unity. In addition, I received several unsolicited calls from UWM leaders asking if we were okay and checking to see what our needs were.
Most touching to me were the numerous ministers who reached out to offer kind words and prayer. Information was distributed through various Unity publications and social media networks and, as a result, we received several warm and caring cards and donations from other Unity communities. These donations allowed us to make repairs to our building and to help our members recover from their losses. At a time when my leadership skills were stretched beyond compare, the strength and support of UWM helped empower me to overcome my own fears as they arose.
It is important to know, in any emergency, that you are not alone and that the whole Unity international network is available to support you and the people you serve.