Media Center

The Next Disaster: Are You Ready?

Wheaton’s new Humanitarian Disaster Institute equips and empowers churches and communities to prepare for the worst and recover with resilience. by Katherine Halberstadt Anderson ’90


“In Tokyo, many things appear normal, but internally we are not the same,” says Martha Foxwell Berg ’70, who along with her husband, Gaius ’69, leads Kurume Bible Fellowship, an international church in Japan.

In the days and weeks after the disaster of March 11, the Bergs went to bed with clothing immediately available “suitable to run and live in for several weeks if necessary.” To this day the couple carries water when they travel by train and keeps an “earthquake bag” ready with supplies. “After that day, life was never quite the same. We began living with the awareness that everything could radically change in a moment and that each day is a gift,” Martha says.

Many people and entire congregations around the world live with a post-disaster mentality after catastrophic events such as the recent ones in Japan, Haiti, the Gulf Coast, and the Jersey Shore.

Local calamities—tornadoes, fires, and acts of violence—change lives and test the responsiveness of the church every day. As we watch the news and send aid, it’s difficult not to wonder: What can my family and church do to be prepared for an emergency? Am I doing all I can to help those who are suffering?

Dr. Jamie Aten, Dr. Arthur P. Rech and Mrs. Jean May Rech Associate Professor of Psychology, has devoted his career to helping answer these questions. After living through Hurricane Katrina and studying the response of the local and national church, Dr. Aten came to Wheaton College and founded the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI), the first Christian academic disaster research center in the nation.

Dr. Aten and Dr. David Boan, co-director of the Institute and associate professor of psychology, have formed a growing coalition of faculty and students who travel, listen, research, write, and work to develop tools and materials that will help churches and communities in our backyard, across the nation, and around the world.

With seven faculty fellows across the disciplines, graduate students from many departments collaborate on projects ranging from training child advocates in Haiti to interviewing pastors in Japan. Through HDI’s applied research lab, for instance, psychology graduate students helped develop a series of Disaster Spiritual and Emotional Care Tip Sheets in response to Superstorm Sandy for clergy or laypeople to use when working with disaster survivors— all available online.

The HDI team also developed the Ready Faith Series (also available online) to help church leaders get prepared—starting with steps as simple as appointing a disaster ministry coordinator and creating a team and a list of volunteers.

The tip sheets and manuals were among the resources presented when HDI collaborated with FEMA, the American Red Cross, and the Department of Homeland Security at a Faithful Readiness Conference that drew 150 clergy from the greater Chicago area to Wheaton’s campus last fall.

Currently working with World Evangelical Association leaders from Japan, the Philippines, and Haiti, Drs. Aten and Boan hope to develop a “global model of church disaster preparedness and response” adaptable to a wide range of cultural contexts. “We would develop a standard framework, tools, and support system so that in the face of a disaster, pastors and churches would not have to start from scratch,” says Dr. Boan.

With backgrounds in psychology, Drs. Aten and Boan are especially attuned to the needs that often go uncared for—wounds of the heart, trauma from abuse, brokenness of spirit. Visiting Japan one year after the tsunami, Dr. Aten spoke with an elderly woman still living in temporary housing, who said, “Anytime someone from the church visits me, it removes some of the rubble from my heart.” Even a year later, the ministry of the church mattered to this woman’s recovery.

This internal-care aspect of the institute makes HDI stand out in the world of disaster recovery and relief, notes Stephan Bauman ’01, CEO of World Relief. “So often we focus on search and rescue, medical relief, and the essential needs of food and shelter— psychological first aid is something we greatly under-appreciate— which is why I applaud their vision and what they are seeking to do,” he says.

In response to the tragedy at Newtown, for instance, HDI produced a booklet for caregivers and counselors, Helping Children Cope with Traumatic Events, which became a vehicle allowing the College to demonstrate care and concern. “As soon as I saw it, I was convinced we should get it into the hands of people in the Newtown area,” says College Chaplain Dr. Stephen Kellough.

Gifted at teambuilding, Drs. Aten and Boan have developed partnerships with organizations such as World Relief, the American Bible Society, and the Restavek Freedom Foundation to do research and to provide training and technical assistance to the global church.

No matter where the team works, Dr. Aten says, “The most eye-opening part of the research is hearing how people’s faith has gotten them through. Through our research, we’ve demonstrated how people’s faith helps buffer them against a number of common psychological and physical negative consequences after a disaster.”

Their greatest challenge is quite simply “the overwhelming global need for training on how to prepare and how to respond to trauma and disaster,” says Dr. Aten.

But the need isn’t just “out there.” For example Dr. Aten’s own church ministers in an apartment complex where 26 families lost their homes to fire this fall. After helping people with everything from clothing and food to transportation and housing, Rev. Chris McElwee of Wheaton Bible Church says, “We learned a lot. . . . The experience just pointed out that what Jamie and this Institute do is valuable and needed.”

Spring 2013 The Next Disaster

Where in the World is HDI?

HDI currently has international projects in Haiti, Japan, Uzbekistan, Africa, India, Canada, and the Philippines. Projects in the U.S. are underway in Illinois, Alabama, Mississippi, and on the East Coast in response to Superstorm Sandy.

In Haiti

HDI recently co-led two workshops in Haiti, partnering with the Restavek Freedom Foundation, le Centre de Spiritualité et de Santé Mentale (CESSA), and Regent University’s Child Trauma Institute. “In both cases, we found people hungry for practical skills,” says Dr. Boan. “Our emphasis is on building the local person’s capacity.”

The Restavek Freedom Foundation estimates that 1 in 15 children in Haiti lives in slavery. Restavek is the practice of poor, rural families giving their children to relatives or acquaintances in cities in hope of greater opportunities. These children often wind up providing free labor and can become the victims of abuse.

James Kent PSY.D. ’16 followed Dr. Aten to Wheaton from the University of Southern Mississippi and became a research assistant with HDI. He traveled to Haiti with Drs. Boan and Aten and visited a transition house that takes sexually abused girls out of Restavek, providing for them until they are old enough to live and work on their own. Especially heartbreaking for James was the realization that between Restavek, crushing poverty, and the earthquake, trauma is the norm for many people in Haiti.

Last fall, Christian psychologists in Haiti ran a clinical trial intervention with traumatized children, using a culturally contextualized care program co-developed by HDI and Regent University’s Child Trauma Institute. Results from this trial showed that the children demonstrated a decrease in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and spiritual struggles and an increase in positive spiritual practices following the intervention. In collaboration with Christian universities in Haiti, the HDI team hopes to integrate this training for trauma care into courses so that it becomes a sustainable intervention.

For James Kent, traveling to Haiti and working with HDI has “blown the doors off what I thought was possible with a doctoral degree in psychology.”

In Japan

Gary Fairchild, director of international relations and partnerships at World Relief, traveled to Japan six months after the earthquake disaster to discuss needs with the chairman of the Japanese Evangelical Association (JEA).

“We’re depressed,” was the response he received. Gary says, “The Japanese are very skilled and equipped at cleaning up and responding to emergencies, but it’s the disasters of the heart, the inner trauma, they haven’t dealt with.”

And so, through a grant from World Relief, HDI has been working with JEA to equip churches in Japan to address long-term mental health issues and to improve communication between churches via a social networking site built by Wheaton professors and students.

“There are a number of different forms and apps being developed in consultation with Dr. John Hayward, who teaches our mobile computing course,” explains Dr. Paul Isihara, professor of mathematics at Wheaton and an HDI Fellow. Information sent in by pastors and NGOs is transferred to a map so smartphone and internet users can easily pinpoint areas of need as well as available resources. “This system being developed for Japan might be adopted in other places,” Dr. Isihara adds.

HDI also created tip sheets using information gathered by Projects Coordinator Joseph Kimmel M.A. ’12, who traveled to Japan in June 2012 to interview Japanese church leaders. These online sheets deal with everything from self-care, to caring for staff members, to steps for developing partnerships with other churches.

Drs. Aten and Boan then traveled to Japan in November to train 35 JEA pastors on emotional and spiritual disaster care and on how to use the tools and technology the College is still developing. With input from the JEA pastors, the team continues to refine their work.

For students like Joseph, these international opportunities can have lasting benefits. “It laid the groundwork for the future,” he says of his trip to Japan, noting that he is in the process of applying to graduate programs in comparative religion.

Five Simple Steps Everyone Can Take

The Humanitarian Disaster Institute’s Ready Faith manual offers suggestions that help a church leadership team prepare for the worst. Dr. Jamie Aten, co-director of HDI, suggests five initial ways every person can begin.

1. Prayer

Pray for God’s guidance on how best to use your own and your church’s unique resources and ministries that are already available in the event of an emergency. For example, if your church has a ministry to shut-ins, begin with a plan for checking on these people.

2. Prevention

Take inventory of the dangers to your community and identify what to do to prevent and reduce injury and property damage.

3. Preparedness

Bring in necessary resources. Write down your plans and review them with your family. Update your insurance policy and know exactly what’s covered.

4. Planning

Consider what you’ll need to take care of your own family’s food, water, heat, and shelter in the event of a disaster. Make a plan for how your family will communicate in an emergency. Once you’ve planned for your own family, consider who may be vulnerable in your community—and plan ways you might help elderly or disabled neighbors or families with lots of little ones.

5. Practice

Running through your plan helps you learn what is likely to work and what won’t. It also helps you to develop and maintain new skills.

Meet the Students

To prepare Christian humanitarian disaster volunteers, practitioners, and scholars, HDI draws students from ever-widening fields of interest.

Students from geology, computer science, and applied mathematics classes have contributed to HDI by helping develop a social networking site for churches in the Japanese Evangelical Association. Upper-level communication students will also soon be working with HDI on a project to improve disaster messaging.

“Not only are we taking students into the field, but we are trying to bring the field back to students through the courses we teach and through the psychology research lab,” says Dr. Jamie Aten, HDI’s co-director.

At least 60 participating undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students are gaining from HDI research, travel, and writing opportunities.

Alice Schruba PSY. D. ’17

Building Communication Between a Chicago Agency and Local Church Leaders

Alice, who grew up in the hurricane and tornado territory of Texas, knew she had found the right place to pursue her graduate work when she came across the HDI website. “Wheaton is one of the few schools in the nation that offers faith-based training in disaster mental health care,” she says. “Many students don’t get the opportunity to collaborate with professors and a government organization at a high systematic level.” Through HDI, she is working with the Cook County Department of Public Health to establish a curriculum for churches to use in the event of an emergency. The city plans to use the curriculum to train 50 to 100 church leaders at the end of May, building trust and ties between the government agency and churches to create a web of help for times of disaster.

Chris Wilson ’12

Training Child Advocates in Haiti

Chris began working with HDI through a collaborative research class that allowed him to participate in a graduate-level research project while still an undergraduate. After six months in Haiti on a HNGR internship, Chris returned in November as an HDI volunteer working with the Restavek Freedom Foundation to help staff improve procedures, build teamwork, learn techniques for handling difficult situations, and combat burnout and work-related stress. (Restavek—a form of child slavery—persists in Haiti, affecting one in every 15 children.)

“Each child advocate has 50 to 70 children to contact at least twice a month. Many case workers felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of children in desperate situations and not knowing the appropriate level of help for each situation.” The advocates especially appreciated the procedural support for dealing with high-risk situations.

The work in Haiti has grown Chris’s appreciation for the resiliency of those who trust in the Lord in the face of “what really feels like an unending stream of catastrophes. To be able to move forward and praise God through it all—that is an incredible thing.”

Melissa Smigelsky ’08, M.A. ’12

Analyzing Trauma and Effectiveness of Treatment Models in Sub-Saharan Africa

After researching the cost of trauma in sub- Saharan Africa through a grant with the American Bible Society, Melissa, currently a research associate with HDI, sees the need for more cultural contextualization in treating pervasive post- traumatic stress disorders.

Her work on HDI research projects has also given her new lenses on the problem of suffering: “I used to only think about what I could do to alleviate suffering. But when that’s not an option, I’ve realized that suffering with, enduring with—this is what we are called to do as Christians.”

Through her HNGR internship in South Africa and an HDI research project interviewing Congolese refugee women who have experienced sexual trauma, Melissa has “seen profound demonstrations of what it means to suffer well.”

In the process of applying to Ph.D. programs, Melissa hopes someday to work with Africans to develop more culturally relevant methods of psychological treatment

The Making of a Disaster Specialist

“Now what?” wondered Dr. Jamie Aten as he stood in his living room seven years ago with a roll of duct tape in hand. He and his family had moved to Mississippi just six days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, and he had just finished following the preparedness instructions issued by state and local governments.

During the months following the disaster, he visited local congregations and witnessed how these churches addressed the overwhelming needs. One tiny congregation, for instance, rallied around a widow who had lost everything. They became her family.

Jamie listened to stories, meeting everyone from a beleaguered local pastor, exhausted by the seemingly endless needs of his struggling congregation, to a man in his early 40s who quit his job and moved to Mississippi to help with the recovery. The man explained his motivation: “This was something small that I could do to be a witness of Christ in such a terrible situation.”

Dr. Aten served as assistant director of the Katrina Research Center at the University of Southern Mississippi before coming to Wheaton as the endowed Rech associate professor of psychology. He has spent countless hours researching disaster preparedness and response and considering ways to enable the body of Christ around the world to prepare for the unthinkable and to rally around those in need. In essence, he’d like every church member to be prepared to answer his question, “Now what?”

Nashville Dream Tour >

Media Center