Jamie Aten on Religion and Disasters (Encore Presentation)
Date: September 3rd, 2017

When disaster strikes your community, who ya gonna call?  Churches and other religious organizations, that’s who!  As an integral part of civil society, religious congregations are often the best positioned to be first responders in an emergency, and to be the organizations that can offer long-term recovery assistance long after other emergency responders have moved on.  Prof. Jamie Aten, the Rech Associate Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College, discusses his experience with natural and man-made disasters and what churches can do to assist in such emergencies.  We begin with Jamie’s own incredible story of how he came upon this topic, moving to southern Mississippi in the late summer of 2005, mere days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall.  His experience with that storm, and his ability to cull together his research team to study how congregations responded to that event, led him to focus on how religious groups play a role in disaster planning and recovery.  Prof. Aten emphasizes that disaster assistance isn’t merely about tangible resources such as water bottles and blankets, but involves a network of relationships.  He draws upon a variety of examples from his research and personal experience to show how churches need to understand their own ministerial strengths, and play to those in developing an emergency response plan.  For example, congregations that devote a great deal of attention to elderly care would best be situated to help with senior citizens during a crisis.  He also talks about the importance of developing a disaster response plan and involving members of the congregation who have relevant skills; laying all the planning and coordination on the shoulders of a pastor is not necessarily a good way to go about this task.  Jamie raises the example of a “chainsaw ministry” that helped with tree clearing and construction-related issues following one storm.  He further talks about experiences in other parts of the world including Japan, where there is not a strong Christian culture, and the Philippines, where asking poor communities to plan for disasters is not a realistic option (as storing food amongst a starving population is not the best use of resources).  Throughout our discussion, Prof. Aten mentions the role of resilience and fortitude, and connects this to how churches — as members of a community — are often best situated to provide these needed emotional and spiritual resources.  Moreover, unlike government agencies or non-governmental organizations that often must leave an affected area by a certain date, local religious groups can continue to provide community support over the long-term, including the celebration of anniversaries that are important for people to cope with traumatic events.  We finish with Jamie’s personal reflection on his cancer diagnosis and what he has learned over the course of his academic career.  Recorded: August 1, 2016.


Prof. Jamie Aten’s personal home page and bio at Wheaton College.

The Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton.

Disaster Ministry Handbook, by Jamie Aten and David Boan.

Spirituality and the Therapeutic Process, by Jamie Aten and Mark Leach.

Spiritually Oriented Interventions for Counseling and Psychotherapy, by Jamie Aten and Mark McMinn.

Culture and the Therapeutic Process, by Mark Leach and Jamie Aten.


Melissa Matthes on Sermons after Tragedies.

Jim McGuffey on Church Security.


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