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Faith community aids those overlooked in disasters

With the momentum generated by media attention on disasters, faith communities naturally mobilize in response. Beyond that, faith organizations continue when media attention wanes.

Neil Molenaar

Neil Molenaar helps on a site.

Working for years with Church World Service, the Christian Reformed Church and Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, Neil Molenaar fosters interfaith response to long-term post-disaster needs and training for preparedness in case of disasters.

His vision is to develop for Washington a comprehensive interfaith and ecumenical—in the broadest sense—capacity for response to a major catastrophe.

As he “retires” from his volunteer role as regional manager of Christian Reformed Church (CRC) disaster recovery programs, Neil will mentor his successor and write a history of the CRC World Relief Committee from 1972 to 1990, when he was director.  He will do that along with developing the Washington Faith Based Disaster Recovery Network and organizing interfaith response to recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

So he has little time to sit in the sun reading a book and ignoring the problems of victims of the recent hurricanes.

Neil is working with the Washington Association of Churches in partnership with Church World Service to facilitate statewide response to evacuees trickling in and on long-range plans.

“Hurricane Katrina is the first catastrophic disaster I have dealt with,” he said.  “So I’m ready to think outside the box, in order to respond effectively and efficiently.  We cannot let old patterns control.  I can’t say because of my experience that we should do something one way because it’s how we always did it.”

FEMA has given Washington an emergency declaration, so what the Washington VOAD does on the state level will be reimbursed.  In the past, clients referred to faith-based and voluntary disaster response organizations were asked if they had registered with FEMA, which does not release funds until they inspect the home to confirm it is destroyed.

“People coming here cannot wait for their needs to be assessed.  We must address immediate needs of evacuees who are arriving all over the state, coming to stay with families and friends.  We in the faith community need to respond to their needs,” Neil said.

Over the years, he has established networks of organizations and resource people.  He meets with them in conference calls to determine ways for the faith community to respond.

“In every county, we will address how to meet special needs of evacuees beyond what the Red Cross and FEMA do,” he said.

Neil has been a pioneer in establishing interfaith disaster relief efforts, particularly through Church World Service and Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD). 

He helped form the Inland Northwest Interfaith Disaster Response Network after floods in 1996.  Once rebuilding was done, that network, which formed under the then Spokane Council of Ecumenical Ministries, closed.    After wildfires in the Okanogan area in the summer of 2004, he developed an interfaith recovery program there.

In both cases, regional interfaith disaster groups formed and raised funds from local and national sources to meet long-term needs of those who lost homes.

“People are normally not concerned about disasters nor are they interested in being involved until there is a major disaster, but disasters can strike any time,” said Neil, who lives in Bremerton.

“While media make hoopla about a disaster, people are concerned, but when it goes off the media radar screen, few are interested in the long-term recovery to put people back on their feet. 

“I work with the church, because they have a mandate to work long-term,” he said.

Neil said government and faith communities want to develop interfaith disaster response groups, so there is understanding and respect for the response needed five months to five years after a disaster. Interfaith organizations repair and rebuild homes, or build new homes to replace those damaged or destroyed.

“Along with physical needs, there are long-lasting emotional, psychological and spiritual needs.  We focus our attention on vulnerable people, the poor, disabled, single-parent families and elderly.  Those with insurance can hire people to do the reconstruction,” Neil said.

“It takes months to generate money and volunteers.  With the work of volunteers giving 10,000 hours—worth $17.50 an hour—after a disaster in Skagit and Snohomish counties, we had a sizeable contribution, along with $60,000 in financial gifts,” he said.

“Often recipients are amazed that people would leave their homes to spend two to three weeks to help them rebuild.  They are amazed by that kind of love.  They wonder what drives the volunteers.  Many do it as Christians, an expression of their personal faith in gratitude to God.

“Many volunteers are at a time in their lives when they want to do something meaningful, something that has sustainability and helps people restore their lives,” he said.

As director of the national CRCWRC in Grand Rapids, Mich., Neil developed a disaster response program when Church World Service (CWS) had no defined program. He recruited volunteers through the CRC and has a pool of people ready to respond.

“Interested in the role of churches in long-term assistance after disasters, I first embraced the idea of encouraging interfaith response in 1974 after a tornado in Xenia, Ohio,” he said.

He has established interfaith disaster response organizations in Kentucky, Idaho, Nebraska and Washington.

Originally from Minnesota, he lived in Iowa before first moving to Washington in 1947.  After high school in Lynden and a year at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, he served two years in the military during the Korean War.  He completed studies at Calvin in 1957, married, and moved with his wife, Kay, to Washington, where he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in sociology at the University of Washington.

Specializing in criminology, he served with the Department of Corrections from 1961 to 1969.

Concerned about people’s emotional and psychological suffering in disasters, he decided to give his talents to the church.  His goal was to inspire one-to-one connection among lay people.

He realized that skills from helping prisoners put their lives back together after the disaster of incarceration would transfer both to disaster aid and to helping church people reach out to care about people next to them in pews and outside the church.

Involvement in 1976 response to a flood in Colorado led to connections with Church World Service (CWS), which has provided an ecumenical base for building volunteer disaster consultants.

In 1990, he returned to Washington to manage a Red Cross Chapter.  From 1992 to 1994, he was the first consultant for the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), working with CWS and the Christian Reformed Church to develop state VOADs to connect volunteer agencies.

In 1994, he started Northwest Mercy Ministries, a network of 60 Christian Reformed Churches.  He was director from 1995 to 2002.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, he was appointed one of two part-time, volunteer disaster response recovery liaisons with Church World Service.

“I hope the state’s faith groups work with the Washington Association of Churches and Church World Service, so when a disaster happens here, we will be ready to respond immediately.”

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By Mary Stamp - Copyright © October 2005 - The Fig Tree