By Deacon Timothy Siburg
I genuinely believe no one expects to be caught in a disaster. We all might know that it is possible, but we probably don’t expect it. The terrible derecho that devastated the Midwest, especially our Iowa neighbors, earlier in August and the on-going global pandemic of COVID-19 are examples of current unexpected disasters.
The “500-year flood,” and extreme blizzards that ravaged Nebraska in 2019 are additional examples. Combined, these unexpected disasters cost many lives, resulted in millions of dollars in losses, and turned many lives upside down. Communities were cut off. Roads were washed out. Bridges were impassable. These new realities lasted for months. The land surrounding churches and school districts was divided by rivers. Normal drives for many disciples in my family’s congregation went from being 10 minutes to, in many cases, 45 minutes or more. But, by God’s grace and abundance the destruction didn’t have the last word.
Out of and in response to such disaster, I have witnessed some of the most life changing acts of stewardship I have ever seen. Through it all, I have come to learn and believe at least four things:
- Generosity and God’s abundance are real: I preach about this all the time, and it’s a central tenet of stewardship, but now I have seen this in action. People have generously donated more than $400,000 for the Nebraska Synod Disaster Fund that I have had the privilege of helping distribute to those in need. Faith communities near and far have prayed for Nebraska congregations and communities and have volunteered to send work crews and help wherever it’s needed. God’s work continues to be done in very real and tangible ways.
- People of faith want to help: The way people step up when they see the reality of a disaster is incredible. You may not have to make much of an “ask” to receive help and support when disaster strikes. In seeing tragedy and devastation like this, there is a yearning deep inside to help. This is a gift. It is equally important in the short and long term disaster response to be strategic. The last thing impacted communities need immediately after a disaster, like the floods we experienced in Nebraska in 2019, is for truckloads of stuff to arrive. Such gifts, while well-intentioned, are not always helpful because they create an unneeded logistical challenge relative to storage and distribution. Often, well-intentioned gifts sit untouched in warehouses or empty rooms in a church or school for long periods of time. In the immediate aftermath, it’s much more helpful to send money and gift cards which can be distributed quickly and meet the immediate needs of those affected for groceries, cleaning supplies, gas, clothing, diapers, and more.
- Post-disaster is a great opportunity to imagine, adapt, and learn: The amount of innovation, dreaming about potential partnerships, and concrete ways to help has been rich since the flood waters started to recede and the snow from the blizzards melted. I heard these words from a colleague shortly after the flood, “Don’t waste a good disaster.” This isn’t to minimize it, but to recognize that such events, though traumatic, are also great potential catalysts for change for the better especially in the ways the church meets its communities’ and neighbors’ needs. Some Nebraska congregations are discerning and deciding to become shelter spaces going forward and are making the necessary decisions to install shower stalls in bathrooms in order to house individuals and families if an emergency warrants.
- Telling the Story: My good friend and stewardship mentor Chick Lane has written quite a bit about how important telling the story is for stewardship. This is also true in the response to disasters. Because we told Nebraska’s story, people generously shared more than $400,000 for disaster response. Now, Nebraska congregations can tell stories about how that monetary generosity has had real life-changing impacts, leading to more generosity and gifts in response to the on-going recovery effort. Through our stories, we’ve shared how congregations rallied and turned church buildings into shelters to feed and care for the displaced. Our stories of change, restoration, and even resurrection, will continue to powerfully demonstrate the truth of God’s love and abundance in the face of disaster.
I am not a disaster response expert, but I have had the privilege of walking with the people of the Nebraska Synod over the past year and a half responding to the needs of their neighbors and communities. I have been entrusted with their stories of despair and hope, and it is a joy to share some of what I have seen. Stewardship continues during disaster recovery, and maybe it is in times like these that we really see how the many gifts God entrusts to God’s people meet each other’s needs.
About the Author
Deacon Timothy Siburg is the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod, ELCA. He lives in Fontanelle, Nebraska with his wife, Pastor Allison Siburg (Salem Lutheran, Fontanelle) and their daughter Caroline. Timothy and Allison are native Pacific Northwesterners who fell in love while students at Pacific Lutheran University. Timothy holds a BA (Economics, Religion) from PLU in Tacoma, Washington; a MA (Management) from the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management at the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California; and a MA (Congregational, Mission and Leadership) from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Photo by Vlad Teodor
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