The Church’s Role in the Midst of Crisis

The Church’s Role in the Midst of Crisis
30 March 2020
David M. Boan and Josh Ayers wrote Creating Shared Resilience: The Role of the Church in a Hopeful Future. Here they share about partnering with God in the work of relief and development, their vision for an empowered church, and where they’re finding hope in the midst of crisis.

Where It Began: Church, Faith, and Encountering the Love of the Father

David: My faith journey has been quite varied and I’m a bit of a church vagabond. Over the years, I’ve attended EV Free, Missionary Alliance, Presbyterian, Reformed, and, more recently, Methodist churches. As a child, I was part of an Evangelical Free church, which is where I learned the basics of faith and made my faith commitment (which I later renewed when I was in college). 

I chose Rosemead Graduate School (where I did my PhD in clinical psychology) based on my desire to pursue the integration of psychology and theology. That has guided my career choices ever since, from Christian counseling to healthcare quality and safety to my current work in relief and development as Director of Humanitarian Advocacy and Service for the World Evangelical Alliance. 

Josh: I was born and raised in the rural, southern United States, immersed in a culture steeped in Christian religion. Called "old time religion" by some of my kin, it was baked into every facet of life the way lard, flour, and salt were baked into my grandmother's biscuits – inseparable and indistinguishable from the rest of life.

Josh and his Grandma

Christianity was life – from the songs we sang and the prayers we prayed, to the politics we all agreed on and the rules we all lived by. 

I distinctly remember officially "accepting Christ into my heart" in junior high school at a week-long revival, but it wasn't until I went away to university in the big city that I realized how influential that beautiful and broken culture had been on my worldview and behavior, even my identity. I suddenly found myself on a campus of thousands of strangers who had no intention of ever telling me who to be or how to act. Blindly, I made friends with a group of peers who were earnestly seeking after and trying their best to follow Jesus. To this day, I'm convinced that they made all the difference in my relationship with God from that point forward.

I began to learn what it meant for my identity to be "in Christ" as a son of God. 

Finding Purpose: Involvement in Community Development and Humanitarian Relief

David: Relief and development are commonly combined in one phrase, but I focus more on community development. My path to involvement in development goes back many years, as I became increasingly interested in community-level interventions to improve people's lives. 

Up until the seventies, people in California who were born deaf were categorized as developmentally disabled and sometimes ended up in the state hospital system. In the eighties, I was clinical director for a treatment program in California that created homes specifically to bring those who were deaf and the developmentally disabled out of the state hospital and into the community. We began with the idea that if you create an environment that helps people to communicate and be understood, you will greatly reduce problem behavior. We required all staff in the program to be skilled in sign language and prioritized hiring people who were also deaf. 

The program was very successful, and it was a demonstration of how powerful community context can be in helping people. Over the years I built on that experience, looking at the community and social context of quality healthcare and the role of the church in creating a strong and resilient community. Now, as I write this, we are doing the same in response to COVID-19 – empowering churches to help their communities be more resilient in the face of the pandemic. That is the short version of a journey that has had many steps – and some missteps – but has been a persistent journey toward the church and better community life.

Josh: The summer of my sophomore year, I volunteered as an intern with Engineering Ministries International (EMI) in Guatemala. It was there that I came face-to-face with the ugly face of poverty. Not the cute, smiling, fundraising face of poverty, but the hopeless look of despair on the face of a father unable to feed his children or himself.

It was my “road to Emmaus” moment. I heard the voice of God burning in my heart, saying, "Choose today whom you will serve: me or yourself. You cannot serve two masters." 

Josh Ayers in Haiti

I'd stumbled upon my life's calling . . . where my deep gladness and the world's hunger met.

That started me down a path that ultimately led my wife and I to serve again full-time with EMI in Latin America. We had just completed language school when the deadly earthquake of January 2010 devastated Haiti. I found myself suddenly thrown into the deep end of humanitarian relief. I landed in Port-au-Prince fully expecting to be miserable and relatively unhelpful, but was surprised by the grace that God gave me to serve.

To my utter amazement, I'd stumbled upon my life's calling – that place described by Frederick Buechner where my deep gladness and the world's hunger met.

Holding onto Hope: God’s Faithfulness in the Midst of Crisis 

David: Looking over my career, I can see God guiding my path to this point in time. As I write this, I am coordinating the WEA response to COVID-19. It is an ideal challenge for integrating my psychology training (how do we deal with fear? how do we change behavior?), theology training (integral church mission), and faith (compassion and mercy). I think my current work generally, and this crisis in particular, bring together everything God has led me through over the years. 

This crisis, like all crises, will fall more heavily on the poor and disadvantaged.

It is also a time to promote the role of the church. This crisis, like all crises, will fall more heavily on the poor and disadvantaged. They need the church for support and advocacy. Public health professionals need the church to help build trust and help people comply with the burden of containment measures. My varied career has included getting health professionals to follow disease prevention guidelines (like hand washing), and many years ago, I even wrote a book chapter on the social science of disease prevention.

Nothing goes to waste when God is guiding the path.

Josh: First, I must humbly admit that maintaining hope is a struggle. It is easy for our focus to be drawn to the flashy, sensational headlines of war, disease, disaster, and displacement, or to be defeated, despondent, or discouraged by the sheer scale and complexity of issues like climate change or poverty. But a better, more nuanced understanding of the basic building blocks of these challenges helps us see through the fog of hopelessness and see these for what they are: manifestations and results of broken relationships between God and humanity, between ourselves and others, between humanity and our treatment of the environment, and even brokenness within our own selves. 

And herein lies our reason for hope: the redemption found in Jesus Christ and the reconciliation of all relationships in him are the only real solutions to the chaos and destruction happening in our world. There is no other authority under heaven that can increase people's capacity for love and service to others – only Christ in us, the hope of glory. And who is God's designated agent of change? It’s his church – the body of Christ. 

The future is hopeful because God is acting through his church to expand our own horizons of what Love can be and do – reorienting us from self-protection to serving others.

A Resilient Church: Stories from the DR Congo and Myanmar

David: I find that the reality of what is happening with the church and what we see in the media are quite different. The good stories do not get as much attention, and there are a lot of good stories. 

One recent example took place when I was in Goma in DRC recently. The northeast area in DRC has been ravaged by violence for more than 20 years. Many families have been displaced multiple times and often separated from one another. Children are living on the streets in Goma, where they are frequently victimized. 

Amid all that tragedy, a group of churches came together to rescue the children. They converted a building next to one church into living quarters and started rescuing children from the streets. They have no external support, and they do not ask for money (which is not to say it is not needed!). They just find the children, get them off of the streets, and care for them. 

Most importantly, once they rescue a child, the church network goes to work to find the child’s relatives. They call it an orphanage, but it is a family reunification program. The church network is also poor, and the children live in tough circumstances, sleeping on a dirt floor with few beds and limited food, but they are safe, they are fed and educated, and eventually, they find their way home. That program will never be in the news. Church service like that balances out a lot of hardship.

David Boan in Goma, DRC

Josh: My favorite story of a church's response to crisis is from a small, remote village in the Ayeyarwady river delta of Myanmar. 

It's my favorite story because the church's response to the impacts of Cyclone Nargis began long before it made landfall in 2008. The groundwork of the church's response were laid during the years of hard work building social capital and social cohesion between the Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus in the village. The pastor of the church understood that the only good for the village was the common good. 

The years of good will and care for these other faith communities earned the pastor and his wife the highest levels of trust in the village. The social norms of exclusion so prevalent in Myanmar between Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu communities were discouraged by the pastor, who said to me, “People are made in the image of God. So, we are all the same.” His message of human dignity, equality, and acceptance, though rooted in a Christian worldview, helped promote a strong sense of community which was shared by all three faith communities in the village. 

Fisherman in Myanmar village

Cyclone Nargis struck this village directly, killing 87 of its roughly 250 residents and leaving in its wake near-total destruction caused by high winds and flooding. The only building left standing was the concrete church structure. But, thanks to the church's faithful stewardship of its responsibility to love its neighbors, the village was able to access resources through the church’s networks and the church itself was aided in recovery by the community around it. Care for others extended beyond the village to surrounding communities as the church made space for homeless families to live. Their shared resilience was beautiful to behold.

After Cyclone Nargis, the village itself took on the name of the church in memorial of the role it played in their recovery and the unforgettable image of it standing tall in the midst of destruction.

A Vision for the Future: The Church as God’s Agent of Transformation

David: In writing Creating Shared Resilience, my desire was that readers would see that the church matters. What we do as a church makes a difference. I want them to see that the church has a role and a place in the community like nothing else, and I want them to be inspired for their own church.

Further, I want the church to grow, and in order for that to happen, people need to see that their faith matters, and the church is the agent through which the faithful can change the community.

Josh: Much has been made in the humanitarian industry lately of the value that local faith communities and faith leaders bring to responses to humanitarian crises. They range from utilitarian perspectives on the usefulness of church infrastructure and the long-term, entrenched social and cultural presence of the church in affected communities, to the immediate response capabilities of the church itself following a catastrophe, to the social trust and political authority some religious leaders wield in their communities. 

Creating Shared Resilience: The Role of the Church in a Hopeful Future by David M. Boan and Josh Ayers

But I hope that readers begin to see, if they don't already, that often disasters are consequences of social, political, and economic forces resulting from our brokenness. That our brokenness "constructs" risk and vulnerabilities for the poorest and excluded among us. And, as such, the church is one of the only true agents of change that can have any real impact on those root causes.

Real positive social, cultural, political, economic, and even environmental change can only take place if the church is faithful to its calling as the voice, hands, and feet of God's redeeming and reconciling grace.

David Boan has a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Biola University, La Mirada, CA, USA. He is the Director of Humanitarian Advocacy and Service for the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) and has thirty-five years of global experience in applied psychology, research, and consulting. He is the co-author of the Handbook of Disaster Ministry (InterVarsity Press) and the author of more than fifty professional articles and presentations.He lives in Boise, ID, with his wife Andrea, where they enjoy hiking, camping and spoiling their grandchildren.

Josh Ayers has an MA in Development and Emergency Practice from Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK. He is the Senior Risk and Resilience Advisor for Food for the Hungry (FH) and has worked on the role of local faith communities in building social capital for enhanced resilience to climate-related hazards in Asia. Prior to Food for the Hungry, he worked with Engineering Ministries International (EMI) across Latin America and the Caribbean. He lives in the Washington, DC, area with his wife Allison and two children.

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