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Rev. Earl E. Johnson Headshot

Providing Disaster Relief With The American Red Cross, 10 Years After 9/11

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Until June 30, I had the honor and privilege of managing spiritual care for the American Red Cross at their national headquarters in Washington, D.C. I received disaster spiritual care manager training with Red Cross in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on America.

In the past 10 years, I've had the both the privilege and the challenge of recruiting and training highly credentialed healthcare chaplains, counselors and educators to closely collaborate with our federal government and professional chaplaincy partners to provide immediate emotional and spiritual support following a catastrophic mass fatality incident -- like the terrorist attacks -- but also mass fatality natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, as well as the mass murders at Virginia Tech and the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

Natural and human-caused disasters are not just about physical destruction -- these disasters are also emotionally and spiritually traumatic. The trauma of Sept. 11 is still very much with us. It's a part of our national identity and memory. Managing consequences, building resilience and politicizing fear all have been responses that have emerged in these past 10 years. So what stands out in my work over the past 10 years for a humanitarian organization with a fundamental principle of neutrality?

First, hospice workers make good disaster spiritual care responders.

Though not immediately evident with anecdotal, scientific or theological research, what has emerged in my experience is that those who have training and experience with the chronically ill also make good disaster spiritual care providers, without exception.

Hospice training and experience -- being with persons and their loved ones who anticipate grief -- is transferable to the disaster arena, where unanticipated death through attack or accident precipitates unimaginable emotional and spiritual trauma to those who suffer immediate and, in most instances, horrific death.

Sometimes there are no answers, there are no words, which may explain or give comfort to those who must endure days and months of suffering and believe in a benevolent, loving creator. To be that compassionate presence, to know how to sit and be with those who are terminally ill and with those who love them. Likewise, when catastrophic events occur, the same training and experience, as well as emotional and spiritual support, transposed to the family assistance center where those who have experienced immediate, traumatic loss can identify and access support for human and material loss. Those who have served in hospices are better trained and conditioned to be with those profoundly impacted by these disaster events.

For persons of faith, disaster response may be the social action of our time. Seeing images of those experiencing profound suffering -- whether the twin towers, the Pentagon or the fields of Shanksville, Pa., followed by the 1,600 who died across the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans -- there are many who seek answers in religion or seek a theological understanding of the event, as well as how to respond as believers in a faith tradition. There may be those who answer in definite scriptural passages as explanations. For others, there are no simple, clear-cut answers. Prayers for wisdom and compassion are tenets of all major faith traditions. Chaplains know how to be with persons of all major faith traditions as well as those who claim no faith tradition. Board-certified chaplains have faced rigorous clinical training and small group process to be that compassionate presence while one is undergoing health challenges, as well as being the non-anxious presence on the battlefield for those chaplains in the military. The hospice chaplain as a specialization knows how to respond to disaster. This may not be a welcome or helpful time for a theological explanation or generalization. Why did God destroy Joplin, Mo., or kill 562 persons this spring in Alabama, Mississippi and the South in an unprecedented tornadic outbreak? Why do children get cancer?

Early warnings and continuing research for cures and treatments have saved many and will save many. Yet, mass fatality disasters -- hurricanes and planes used as weapons -- are not supposed to happen domestically in our time, but did on Sept. 11, 2001 and in these intervening 10 years.

My work at the Cabrini Medical Center and Hospice pre-Sept. 11 has helped me immeasurably during these past years at the American Red Cross supporting those profoundly impacted by mass fatality disasters. There is so much help needed for those who serve others in unimaginable suffering and pain. This one insight -- that healthcare chaplain clinical training can be transferred to the catastrophic disaster arena -- has been discerned over 10 years of recruiting, screening and training those who respond to these disasters, those who support and serve. It is sacred work. I give thanks to all those who have helped others in profound need, and helped us remember and honor their lives then and now.

This post is part of a collection of 9/11 reflections from chaplains who were there.

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