Service, not sermons: Churches put aside differences to work together during crises

Published: Friday, April 20 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

A small statue stares out from the wreckage of the Rosedale Community in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Thursday, May 5, 2011. Authorities continue the search for victims among the rubble over a week after a killer tornado decimated the town. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Associated Press

TUSCALOOSA, ALA., — For the past few days, Kelsey Tokunaga and Ashley Vomund have been happily wielding paintbrushes and sporting smudges of khaki green, gray and brown paint in their hair and fingernails.

The teens, ages 18 and 17, are volunteers with a group from St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in Incline Village, Nev., and have spent their spring break helping a small Alabama town recover from last April's devastating tornadoes.

It's the first time the teens have been to the South, been addressed as "y'all," and worn shorts at night without freezing. But giving service? That's nothing new.

"Our church focuses on service," says Vomund. "And my family has always pushed for volunteering constantly. That one moment where you see someone smile because of something you've done, big or small, that makes it all worth it."

Throughout the country and around the world, religious organizations and their volunteers are constantly rushing to aid and empower victims of natural disasters, war and civil unrest.

Working alongside devoted government and private organizations, these religious group volunteers haul branches, mop up floodwater, feed and shelter entire communities and empower victims to rebuild. And while their individual faiths prompt them to act, Mennonites and Mormons, Baptists and Buddhists will put aside doctrinal differences and just go to work — having discovered that they work better when they work together.

Just ask Tokunaga, a Buddhist and honorary Episcopalian for the trip with her best friend Vomund.

"There's a bigger community than just your religion," she says. "(When churches work together) it should show people that it shouldn't matter what religion you're from. We're all the same, and we should all treat each other equally and try to help anybody that isn't as fortunate as we are."

Coordinating efforts

On Aug. 14, 1969, Hurricane Camille formed and quickly gathered speed over the Gulf of Mexico. By the time she crashed into Mississippi's coast, her 190 mph winds flattened entire cities and killed 259 people.

"(Everyone) ran to the community to help because the community was in need, but we also all got in each other's way," said James McGowan, associate executive director of partnerships at Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster or VOAD — the agency that was formed after Camille to better coordinate disaster response between agencies.

The group has grown from seven to 50 national members, and includes religious groups such as Catholic Charities USA, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Mennonite Disaster Service as well as private-sector organizations such as the American Red Cross, Humane Society of the United States and The Salvation Army.

When a disaster strikes, agencies check in with their local, state or national VOAD to make sure they're not duplicating efforts. If they are, the groups then look at working together.

"We (tell) people when they come around the VOAD table to take your hat off and think not of your agency or church, but think of the greater good of the survivor and what can we bring to the table for the disaster survivors," McGowan said.

And each religious agency has different skills and resources to bring. Some provide immediate clean up, like the national Jewish response team NECHAMA. Others, like the Southern Baptists, are known for their mobile kitchens, where they prepare food often provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Other groups, such as the St. Patrick's Episcopal Church, come in later and partner with agencies like Habitat for Humanity to rebuild.

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