At the Scene of Disaster: A Ministry of Presence
By: David Ibata
After disaster strikes, The Salvation Army has learned, people certainly need food, water, shelter and supplies, but also something more: a caring listener and the assurance God loves them.
Janeen Johnally of the Central Maryland Area Command, deployed to Texas for Hurricane Harvey, reported that retirees Bonnie Schmolbach and her husband were preparing to move from Port Aransas to Florida when the storm struck, flooding their recently remodeled home. The couple lost their furniture, appliances, everything.
“We lived there 17 years,” Schmolbach told Johnally. “It’s so hard to take it all in, and my husband breaks down every day. We lost pictures and so many other things that can’t be replaced.”
While waiting in line for a hot meal from a Salvation Army feeding unit, Schmolbach met disaster volunteer Francesco Llanas. He comforted her after learning her story. “He asked if he could pray with me, and he did. Francesco really made my day,” she said. He also gave her a Bible.
As a token of her appreciation, Schmolbach gave each canteen worker a wristband that read, “Port A Strong – #Harvey 2017.” “The Salvation Army folks were good to us here in Port Aransas, and the wristband is just a little memento for them so they can remember us,” she said. “We are surely going to remember them for a lifetime.”
The Salvation Army’s disaster services ministry in the United States began with the Galveston Hurricane of Sept. 8, 1900. The deadliest cyclone in U.S. history, it killed 6,000 to 12,000 people. In the first response of its kind for the Army, Salvationists rushed to Texas, setting up a relief tent across the channel from the stricken city to feed and shelter the homeless.
Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and others of 2017 likewise brought an outpouring from the Army– material, in the form of food, supplies and shelter; and emotional, with individuals and teams providing words, prayers and hugs of comfort. About 400 officers, soldiers and volunteers made 28,000 contacts during the Irma response, while upwards of 1,000 Salvationists made 55,000 contacts during Harvey.
In 1900, when Salvationists handed out emergency food and supplies, it was assumed they’d take time to talk and pray with people. That’s still the case, of course, but today it’s a formal part of the mission, and there’s special training for it.
Jeff Jellets, Southern Territory emergency disaster services coordinator, calls it psychological first aid. “Most faith organizations provide emotional and spiritual care – the Southern Baptists, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Samaritan’s Purse – but the Army is uniquely situated to do this in the response phase because we’re usually there early in the disaster,” Jellets said. “The mobile canteens become a natural platform for providing this care.”
Also, he said, “Because of our reputation for disaster work, people trust us to provide that emotional and spiritual care connection.”
Jellets spoke of a young Salvation Army officer delivering liquids to first responders in New York after Sept. 11, 2001. “A firefighter grabbed him and said, ‘We need you to come with us.’
“They walked him into the debris field around the pit and pointed to the body of a fallen firefighter. They said, before we take him out of here, we need you to give him last rites.
“The Salvation Army officer said, ‘Well, I’m not a Catholic priest; I don’t know how to do that.’ The firefighter said, ‘That’s OK, do your best. It’s not for him. It’s for us.’”
The Southern Territory has 17,499 people in its disaster responder database. All can avail themselves of the classes listed under training at the website,
To ensure emotional and spiritual caregivers are properly trained, The Salvation Army offers a four-hour ministry of presence course, followed by an eight-hour introduction to spiritual and emotional care class. For more advanced training, the Army partners with the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF), which offers a curriculum of two-day crisis intervention classes on topics ranging from individual intervention strategies to debriefing services to suicide intervention. Some Salvation Army officers have pursued clinical pastoral education courses toward chaplaincy certifications.
“It is as much about teaching you the boundaries of what you shouldn’t do as it is about what you should do,” Jellets said. “You have to make sure you recognize your limitations and boundaries; otherwise, you can do as much damage as good. You want to avoid pat answers or deep theological discussions. You have to be respectful of the faith the person comes from, or the lack thereof. If a person is an atheist, a disaster is probably not the best time to force a conversion on them.”
Major Susan Dewan, an emotional and spiritual care officer with the Muskogee, Oklahoma, Corps, was at the Pentagon after 9/11 and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. She recently returned from Hurricane Irma deployment to Naples, Florida.
“When Salvation Army officers and staff go out to serve, they have always done that with love and the human touch, to bring the presence of God into a situation … helping people feel they’re not sitting in the dark alone,” she said.
“If you go all the way back to the Galveston Hurricane and Evangeline Booth, when all the Salvationists descended on Galveston, Texas, they went not only with food and water, but to put their arms around the survivors and to be present with them. That’s what spiritual and emotional care is: the incarnational ministry of presence, bringing the presence of God through the body of Christ.”
Major David Dalberg, director of disaster services for the Chicago Metropolitan Division, former national disaster services coordinator and a veteran of 9/11, Midwest floods and Hurricane Katrina, said spiritual care “has always been a part of us.” It became a formal component of The Salvation Army’s disaster response strategy as the incident command model was developed in the 1990s.
A response team now includes an emotional and spiritual care officer. The Army also developed Project Lasting Hope for long-term recovery, with local corps and commands continuing to comfort people after the disaster teams pull out.
“It was an overt expression of faith on our part as an organization – to treat emotional care not as a sidebar, but as a primary part of what we do,” Major Dalberg said.
This year in Naples, where Major Dalberg was incident commander, The Salvation Army deployed nine emotional care officers and specialists as its
canteens served 73,000 meals in the city.
“Our team alone made more than 5,000 contacts with people who were hurting, who were in crisis, who didn’t have answers – who just needed to have somebody listen to their woes and challenges and loss and pain,” he said. “People want answers. They want someone to care about them.”