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Collaborative Interfaith Disaster Response

Lessons for the Interfaith Movement

Collaborative Interfaith Disaster Response

by Paul Chaffee

Starting August 6, 1969, Hurricane Camille whipped across Cuba, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and the East Coast of the United States for eight days with winds up to 174 miles per hour. Camille caused more than $1.4 billion (1969 USD) in damage and claimed 259 lives. Thousands of individuals and organizations, most of them faith-based, from dozens of different traditions, rushed to the rescue, bringing support and aid in any way they could.

Though heart-felt and helpful, they were mostly limited in what they could do. These responders were not connected across or even within denominational lines, or through networks of local congregations. Both secular and faith-based response organizations seeking to serve were competing for funding rather than collaborating. In short, people had few available means for getting a community networked, cooperating, and actively approaching disaster response systemically.

Today that has changed, forcing those willing and able to help to take the ‘head-in-the-sand versus looking-out-and around’ test. The whole environment of disaster response has evolved in the half century since Camille. Interfaith disaster response has become an effective if largely unnoticed model of cooperation that the rest of the interfaith movement can learn from. Disasters, large and small, have been showing up in communities everywhere. From small towns to megalopolises, responding activists will thrive when they learn how to make a difference in the face of disaster, how to help in the big ways as well as the small details that can brighten a life.

If you are acquainted with disaster and want to do something to help, looking ‘out and around’ at the emerging networks, resources, and training will put you on track.

After Camille – VOAD and NDIN

In 1970, seven national disaster-response organizations met for the first time. The National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) was formed. Today it has 56 participating national organizations (faith-based; community-based, and other nonprofit organizations) along with 56 State/Territory VOADs which help coordinate local, grassroots programs throughout the country. They also facilitate partnerships with federal, state, and local emergency management and other governmental agencies, foundations, and education and research institutions.

Their mission is to mitigate and alleviate the impact of disasters; provide a forum promoting cooperation, communication, coordination and collaboration; and foster more effective delivery of services to communities affected by disaster. VOAD is currently guided by its 2019-2023 Vision and Strategic Plan that identifies its goals, the difficulties being faced, and a plan to achieve the goals. What makes the plan powerful has been the emerging grassroots interfaith movement.

Photo:    NPS   , by John Harlan Warren

Photo: NPS, by John Harlan Warren

Over the past quarter-century the spontaneous emergence of grassroots interfaith groups in the US and beyond provided a new context for religious activists anxious to help those suffering disaster. Organizations with such a commitment came to be known as “disaster interfaiths,” the plural noun offering an unusual but defining descriptor of pluralistic groups wanting to reach out to the distressed. The tragedy of 9/11, terrorist attacks across America and abroad, along with floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes inspired disaster interfaiths to organize and work together. They focused their attention on local advocacy, disaster chaplaincy, mitigation education, preparedness training, relief, and recovery coordination.

In 2005 a group of interfaith executives met to create the National Disaster Interfaiths Network (NDIN). They created a consortium of subject-matter experts who collaborate with faith communities and their partners to reduce disaster-caused human suffering through the exchange of training, research, resources, and best practices.

Resources and Training

If grassroots collaboration is the key to this development, the fruit of the effort included new resources and programs that train the volunteers on whom disaster response finally depends. NDIN services include consultants, a speakers’ bureau, workshops, and trainings. Two major field guides, published collaboratively with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, are foundational for everything else NDIN provides. It is all free to download:

The Religious Literacy Primer for Crises, Disasters, and Public Health Emergencies (2014) is a quick-reference tool providing at-a-glance information on basic religious literacy for 24 of the largest religious communities in the United States. The book aims to enable emergency managers, public health officials, first-responders, voluntary agencies, and others involved in disaster response and recovery to understand how faith communities and emergency management intersect. The Primer can guide practitioners in their interactions within disaster-affected communities by moving beyond simplistic understandings of religious beliefs and practices to provide guidance for physical interaction/etiquette, religious symbols, information on holidays, dietary restrictions, and provision of post-disaster mass care including feeding, shelter, medical treatment, mental health care, and spiritual care.

This is a superb resource for any interfaith activist (not just disaster responders) wanting to know more about the details of how different religions live and breathe. The section on Buddhism, for instance, surveys languages used (in American Buddhism), the founder, branches and denominations, basic tenants, sacred texts, sacred buildings and structures, governance, and point of contact – all in two of the Primer’s 137 pages.

A second primer is Working with U.S. Faith Communities During Crises, Disasters, and Public Health Emergencies: A Field Guide for Engagement, Partnerships, and Religious Competency (2014). This is a guide for engaging and building sustainable and competent partnerships with faith communities throughout the entire disaster lifecycle. It is filled up with information about meeting the religious ‘other’ and working together – making it as relevant to any interfaith enterprise, not just disaster response.

Anyone needing to learn ‘quickly’ about disaster response can learn the ropes of interfaith disaster response by downloading “Disaster Tips Sheets for U.S. Religious Leaders.” They were created for NDIN’s Be a Ready Congregation campaign, launched in May 2011. The 26 tips sheets are free and cover the following topics.

  • Disaster Basics for Faith Communities

  • The Disaster Lifecycle: Where Do Religious Leaders Fit In?

  • National Faith-Based Disaster Service Organizations

  • The Role of Faith Communities in Disasters

  • Disaster Backlash: Bias Crimes & Mitigation

  • Active Shooter in a House of Worship

  • Continuity Of Operations Planning

  • Self-Care for Religious Leaders

  • Disaster Spiritual Care

  • Faith Communities & Disaster Mental Health

  • Faith Communities & the Disaster Distress Helpline

  • Faith Communities & Trauma Resilience

  • Faith Communities & Risk Communication

  • Faith Communities & Evacuation Planning

  • Faith Communities & Disaster Sheltering

  • Faith Communities & Long-Term Recovery

  • Faith Communities & Debris or Mud Removal

  • Faith Communities & Cold Weather Hazards

  • Faith Communities & Hot Weather Hazards

  • Faith Communities & Disaster Volunteerism

  • Faith Communities & Donations Management

  • Immigrant Eligibility for Disaster Assistance

  • Children & Disaster

NDIN also created an electronic library to provide “best practices, current information and critical resources for each stage of the disaster life cycle is a constant challenge in the ever-evolving arena of disaster spiritual care and faith-based human services.” To access the library, go here and then click on e-library.

In New York, For Instance . . .

Peter Gudaitis

Peter Gudaitis

Hundreds of interfaith disaster activists have contributed to this rich body of resources, contributed also to creating extended networks of responders who now cooperate and coordinate their efforts. But the genius of one leader, Peter Gudaitis, has helped direct and shape the whole effort. Gudaitis currently is chair of National VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) and president of the National Disaster Interfaiths Network (NDIN). Perhaps the best way to glimpse the scope of his contribution is to survey the New York Disaster Interfaith Services, where he serves as executive director & CEO. He came well-prepared, with more than 30 years of experience in chaplaincy, disaster emergency management, faith-based philanthropy, program management, and social services administration – including almost a decade in Emergency Medical Services.

The New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS) story began with the fall of the Twin Towers in New York City. More than two-thirds of the social service agencies responding to the horror on September 11, 2001 were faith-based. Afterwards “New York City faith-based agencies established programs to assist in rescue, relief, and recovery efforts. Thousands of religious leaders and people of faith volunteered to help those impacted by the attacks and the recovery worker community. This collective response was effective, but it lacked both the capacity to coordinate recovery services and the resources to prepare for future disasters.

Founded in 2001, NYDIS’ goal was to boost their effectiveness, and it has proven to be an innovative model for an interfaith long-term recovery organization. NYDIS evolved beyond the limits of a typical recovery agency to address all phases of the disaster life cycle with mitigation education, preparedness training, planning, recovery, and advocacy programs. It is a nonprofit federation of 61 faith-based human service providers, charitable organizations and faith communities working in partnership to provide disaster readiness, response, and recovery services for New York City.

NYDIS collaborates with local, state, and national organizations to facilitate the delivery of non-sectarian spiritual care, relief, recovery services and planning support. Its relief and recovery services mostly target under-resourced victims’ families, survivors, and impacted under-served communities. NYDIS has 26 employees and a $4M annual operating budget funded by donations, grants, and government contracts. NYDIS’ 2018 recovery caseload included more than 3,000 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, and Puerto Evacuee clients. Its resilience programs annually provide training, preparedness tools, and other programming to more than 6,000 religious leaders.

How does this translate into programmatically?

Here’s a sampler of the offerings: Advocacy, Evacuee Services, Events and Trainings, Faith Sector Community Preparedness Program (FSCPP), HOWalert, HOWCALM, HOWready, Temporary Housing Services (THS), and Unmet Needs Roundtables.


HOWalert is particularly important – a free emergency notification system for all NYC religious leaders. Only used during emergencies and two optional annual exercises, religious leaders are notified about life threatening or urgent-crisis management incidents that should be rapidly shared with their congregants, clients, and staff.

They also publish a free newsletter including recovery news, preparedness tips, and training opportunities that goes to 20,000 readers. NYDISnet ALERTS is a risk communication network that makes up-to-the-minute news available to religious leaders and faith community partners.

Starting Today

What Peter Gudaitis and his many, many colleagues have proven is that while the interfaith movement may often be largely invisible to the public and may be missing in major media. Yet interfaith disaster response is developing a robust, effective, authentically pluralistic interreligious foundation that is critical as we look to the disasters coming in the 21st century and those already upon us. It is a huge achievement that deserves the studied attention for all religious and faith-based leaders. The world of Hurricane Camille is history. If you want to help in days to come, you have a supportive universe that will make your help count.

Faith-based Recovery Organizations Connected by NDIN


Header Photo: Wikimedia