Spiritual Care During Times of Disaster

First let me start by saying I hold all those who have been affected by the devastation from #Harvey in my heart – enfolding all life, including those providing the necessary life giving aid, care and comfort. I can’t begin to imagine the fear, anger and terror being experienced. I am watching from a distance the devastation #Harvey has unleashed, and I can never know the helplessness and powerlessness experienced by those in the middle of it. I send my love, prayer and blessings over the mountains to each of you.

While I may not be able to directly be of support, I also know I experience my own sense of feeling helpless and powerless because, like millions of others, I desperately want to do something to ease the suffering. It’s why I got into ministry: to be a powerful force for humanity – or what I refer to as being the restoration of our original goodness.

Then, a little over six years ago I had the opportunity to be deeply immersed in disaster response, care and long-term recovery. It wasn’t my first introduction to spiritual care during emergencies, but certainly the first time at such a level of disaster.

In May 2011, an F5 tornado leveled the city of Joplin, Missouri and I became the minister for the Unity church there for the next three years. Sometimes leading, sometimes following, sometimes taking steps with great certainty, other times with no idea what the heck we were doing or how something might turn out – but always in great faith. And not just me, but the entire community – always demonstrating great faith. Since then I have immersed myself in learning, certifications, trainings and supporting others when I can – offering guidance, education, training, a listening ear, and open heart.

What I have written here (yes, it is a bit long) will hopefully let someone who is living in the middle of the disaster know that whatever they are feeling or questioning is natural. I also hope that if you are reading this as an “outsider,” that it gives you a little insight to better support people needing spiritual care in ever more effective and compassionate ways.

Spiritual health can often be a casualty of war in times of unprecedented upheaval and change. There are a number of shifts that occur in times of disaster in regards to an individual’s faith, beliefs and spiritual practices. I think sometimes this can get neglected or overlooked, especially by mainstream media coverage, and yet it is every bit as important as our emotional and physical well-being. People not only seek the basic survival needs – shelter, safety, water, food, sanitation and sleep – but they also yearn to make meaning of what is happening in relation to God and in relation to each other.

77% of Americans are affiliated with a religious tradition (2014, PEW FORUM) and according to FEMA, 38% of Americans would expect to rely on the faith-based community for assistance in the first 72 hours after a disaster.

Spiritual health is quintessential for long-term recovery and healing from the confusion, grief and darkness that accompanies great loss. Without it we run the risk of not living from our sense of wholeness, of not stepping back into life with a sense of adventure and creativity, of not being willing to risk new experiences. This becomes imperative the further away we get from the initial trauma.

In times of disaster, people reconsider the core tenets of their religious beliefs, and ask questions like “why did God do this?” They may feel removed from previously held beliefs or even abandon them altogether. So if I am giving spiritual care and support, it is important I not try to talk them out of what they are thinking or feeling or any beliefs that are expressing. Most of us realize it’s just not helpful. In very emotional intense experiences though, we may forget because we want to ease the pain. Just listen, be present to what’s alive for the person in front of you.

People tend to question if there is justice in the world and what the meaning of life is. In terms of our development, we will revert a stage or possibly more, in order to make sense of this “new” life. It is a temporary, but necessary “devolution,” to get the mind to re-engage in order to survive and eventually to thrive. In other words, you may experience people expressing their embedded theology, or the faith of their childhood, even if their faith practice today is very different.

Because of the trauma and subsequent PTSD, many people may have the feeling of needing a cleansing, whether physically or emotionally, and without the support and channels for spiritual care, they oftentimes will close themselves off from loved ones, including family. All of which may sound odd, or even the antithesis of what we think someone needs, but the one thing you can be certain of is to expect the unexpected.

The feeling of gratitude and relief may initially be present right after the disaster, but with each passing day some of the most common feelings that emerge, and can stay for long periods of time, are despair, guilt, hopelessness and shame as they wonder about life and death. It may be a long time before the thankfulness for life returns.

It is very important to meet people exactly where they are at, which is probably the most vulnerable they have ever been, in these types of situations, and it is never the time to debate theology. In times of disaster, being a calm, non-anxious presence conveys the message of support, connection and predictability – things which are generally lacking in their present situation.

What people are looking for are spiritual resources, and you might be it! Be prepared to offer small rituals because they help us rediscover the awe and wonder of the mystery of life. Rituals can be the most healing aspect of spiritual care during times of disaster. They give a sense of belonging, to each other and to something greater – they are activities of faith and hope. This is why it is imperative for me to be familiar with the symbols and core tenets of the world religions, and to encourage partnerships between faiths.

In diverse areas, educate yourself about other cultures in order to avoid stereotypes. Cross-cultural training expands your capacity to be more present to grief, since it looks different in different cultures and faiths. It can be challenging for people to express their inner turmoil, feelings and experiences in a second language, so just stay present and open and don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand something. Here is a link to holy days from many faith traditions, hopefully to support you in being present to whomever may need you as a spiritual resource.

Also, don’t be afraid to hold an online ritual, or “virtual” gathering, and offer it through social media far and wide, not just your own spiritual community. While not ideal, it may be the only way for a community to connect as close to “in-person” as possible. Of course, depending on the severity of the disaster, such as from Hurricane Harvey, thousands may not have access to the internet or even phones. Connect as much as you can with clergy and spiritual leaders from all faiths traditions in your area, for your own well0-being as well as for the well-being of the greater community. In another post I will address in more detail how to engage in emergency preparedness for your home and faith community.

Don’t avoid talking about the disaster, and don’t avoid sharing your own feelings, it humanizes you and lets someone know you are present. If you’re struggling for words it’s because there are no words. Try to avoid giving advice – it presumes you know what they are going through and what they need. I understand the strong desire to ease someone’s pain, however we need to support people in finding their own solutions once the initial intensity and severity of the disaster/trauma has passed. It is important for us create a safe space for people to share their stories, gather and to connect with others to mourn, vent, cry, talk, laughs recover and to know there is safety and comfort in their world.

People will be looking for moments of happiness in their grief, anger and confusion, so be prepared to celebrate life in any circumstance – which doesn’t mean putting on rose colored glasses – but rather it means being of service, caring for yourself and others, even in the bleakest of moments, this is a sign that life continues.

Spiritual health is marked by clarity of purpose, grounded in a recognition of the Source of all life, even in the midst of what may be the worst time of someone’s life. So stay focused, know your personal mission and what you value most. Know your limitations, your strengths and weaknesses. Care for your own well-being by remaining open to discovering new depths of pain as well as new heights of enthusiasm and celebration because this reflects a balanced life – a life of service, a life of caring, a life guided by wisdom and created with compassion.



  1. Dave Cooperberg August 30, 2017 at 5:56 pm

    Well said, sensitive, and emphasizing the importance of being present for the Other, rather than doing something that might not fit where they are. Being overwhelmed means just that. Faith can help but faith gets tested in dire times. And, as you say, self care is important if I am to be in any condition to help another.

  2. Marca Patton August 30, 2017 at 6:36 pm

    What a great article ! As part of the National Organization of Victim Services Crisis Response Team, and Unity student I would love to see Unity have it’s very own Crisis Response Team to serve the community especially the spiritual aspects , Unity Ministers, leaders, and prayer chaplains would enhance any team

  3. Nana Harrison August 30, 2017 at 8:53 pm

    Rev. Kelly, Once again your words are deeply moving and inspiring. Heart felt gratitude for your love and support for Texas coastal families.

  4. kelly isola August 30, 2017 at 9:04 pm

    I’m working on it… As a member of KCVOAD AND MIDRO, and as Chair of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, I am committed to educating and offering services, not just here in KC but for all of Unity. That’s my next blog post, Emergency Preparedness for Spiritual Communities. Let’s stay connected and see what we can do!

  5. Judith Marshall August 31, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    Thanks Kelly! What a great article! I appreciate the support as I venture to support others who are going through hard times. Often its hard to know what to say or do and yet, being called to serve, I want to help and not hinder. Blessings and love!

  6. corazonyrazon September 28, 2017 at 1:27 pm

    A very great article! As the moment we take care by Puerto Rico communities. Thanks Rev Kelly! Gog bless you.

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