Beloved Community in Times of Disaster


As you may be aware, the theme for our services this year is “How Unitarian Universalist Principles Create Beloved Community”.  All the UU Principles may seem to apply in some manner in times of disaster. Recently I was deployed as an American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Provider in response to Hurricane IKE and served in an area of operations around Galveston Bay.   As a result, three of the UU Principles came more clearly to the fore in my awareness.  They are the following:


1.      The inherent worth and dignity of every person

2.      Justice, equity and compassion in human relations

3.      The respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part


One could probably list hundreds of characteristics of Beloved Communities, but, don’t worry, I won’t.  The characteristics that stood out for me were as follows:


  1. Welcoming, inclusive, & hospitable
  2. Build and maintain community
  3. Community as a means to spiritual growth
  4. Gratefulness and warmth
  5. Creating a sense of belonging
  6. Replacement of oppression with inclusion
  7. More genuinely integrated
  8. Have Agape, i.e., an understanding, redeeming good will for all
  9. Provide sanctuary
  10. Reverence for all


These are very positive characteristics upon which I will focus.  However, during disasters, there exists “the best of times and the worst of times” and behaviors.  Thus, there are looters and those who would shoot them right along side heroic attempts at saving lives.  Reality is what it is and cannot be denied.


I will now lay a foundation of the structure of the American Red Cross and the phases of disasters to give you context for the multiple communities I experienced and examples of their interactions over time and space.  For descriptions of the structure and phases, I am drawing heavily on Disaster Mental Health Services: An Overview – The ARC Participant’s Manual, 2005 Edition for training Disaster Mental Health Providers.


The Red Cross is made up of various departments serving various purposes during disaster response.  There are several departments with the expected acronyms of large organizations.  The primary one upon which I will focus is Disaster Mental Health Services (DMHS).  DMHS was established in 1992 for the first time as an entity separate from Disaster Health Services (DHS).  I was in the first group of Disaster Mental Health Providers (DMHP) trained in 1992 and also who responded to Hurricane Andrew in 1992.


The two main goals of DMHS are to meet the emotional needs of the people affected by the disaster (clients) and to help assure the emotional well being of Red Cross Disaster workers (staff and volunteers).  Two key ways DMH workers do this are by serving as a part of

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immediate disaster response teams and by providing specialized assistance for people who need mental health care beyond everyday emotional support.  DMHS workers supplement and assist,

but do not supplant, community mental health care delivery systems and personnel.  Disaster mental health work is crisis intervention rather than therapy.  It may feel therapeutic, but is not therapy.  Crisis intervention is to intervene in a way to help people stabilize and begin again to use their own emotional resources to cope.  The intervention is time-limited until, if needed, local mental health providers take over.


All Red Cross workers are trained in the phases of disasters.  These include:


  1. The Heroic Phase that occurs before, during and immediately after the disaster.  During this phase some or all of the following emotions or behaviors may occur:  risk taking to save lives or property, confusion, shock, denial, grief, anxiety, fear and others.


  1. The Honeymoon Phase occurs during early relief efforts where there are feelings of relief, hope and high expectations of assistance.


  1. The Disillusionment Phase evolves as the relief effort continues during which frustration and increased stress possibly lead to abuse of children, spouses, elders or increased alcohol and drug use, looting, etc.


  1. The Reconstruction Phase is after the relief effort ends and where acceptance of personal responsibility for recovery or resignation may occur.


This is a generic description.  Individuals and communities may experience these phases at different speeds, in different sequences and in different ways.


Earlier I mentioned multiple communities.  For me, these ranged in size from two to 200 or more.  They were, my partners and me, the DMHS team, client and staff shelter members, Red Cross Headquarters staff, North Carolina Men’s Convention kitchen operators and client communities.  I shouldn’t exclude the million or so people in the Houston metropolitan area.  There was also a Vietnamese fishing community, as well as a small bayou community isolated from others, and on and on.  Even now I almost neglected to mention, the horses, cows, dogs, cats, armadillos, water moccasins, alligators, fish, trees, bushes, grass, water, etc., etc. 


I found that community is not defined by time, or space, or culture, or disasters, or other demographic data or experiential happenings alone.  I now believe that community is defined more by the relationships that occur within those human and environmental parameters.  That includes a primary, if not the primary, community, which is with one’s self.  If one cannot commune with one’s self, community with others is far more difficult.  Clearer connections with one’s self allow clearer connections with all else. Like John Muir, the great naturalist, said, “If you try to pick something up by itself, you’ll find it is connected to everything else in the universe.”  I have learned and known that in different ways for some time.  Life just seems to keep reminding me.  I think Life is patiently providing me the repetitions of life experiences until I really get it.  But, perhaps I digress.  However, as you have heard me say in words to this effect before, “Digression is a Unitarian Universalist prerogative”.


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Now for the part to which I have been looking forward – telling stories that reflect UU Principles and Beloved Community.  More formally, these are examples to make the point, but thinking of them as stories is funner. 


That reminds me.  One of the primary skill sets for DMH workers is to remain flexible and keep and express a sense of humor.  If one doesn’t, one cannot provide support and solace without greater risk of experiencing compassion fatigue.  Compassion fatigue is when one absorbs so much of other’s pain that one cannot function as effectively as needed in one’s helping role.  When a person’s cage has been rattled, they need a helper whose cage is firm.  If you have two wobbly cages, it is akin to “the blind leading the blind” emotionally.


NOW for the stories.   I find it difficult not to tell all the stories.  However, time requires that I tell only one or two stories associated with each of the three UU Principles I mentioned.


The Inherent Dignity and Worth of Every Person


My partner and I were assigned to check out a report of a man who lived alone in an isolated place who may not have had food or contact for several days.  We made a wrong turn and came upon another man whose home at the water’s edge was torn in half.  He had built it himself and was already determined to build again.  In fact, he wanted us to take pictures of the damage and to walk with him as he described his dream home when rebuilt.  The resilience in these people is amazing.  Then he directed us to the home of the man whom we were seeking.  He said that he wasn’t “quite right in the head, but a good man”.  He went on to say that we needed to be aware of that “redneck next door who was unpredictable, but mostly made noise”.  


We found the man’s home where he was mowing the lawn.  We were immediately aware that the man, whom I’ll call Bo, was mentally challenged.  He was cordial and invited us into his home.  It was clear he kept his home clean.  His brother had died right after the storm and he needed to show us his funeral program.  It was clear he had water, but we weren’t sure about food and other necessities although he assured us he was OK. 


As we were leaving, a couple men drove up and dropped off a case of Meals-Ready-To-Eat (MREs) and told him to come to their house two doors down to learn how to use them safely.  One of the men had been Bo’s employer for many years although Bo was now retired.  The other was a neighbor who also kept an eye on him.  They also noted that Bo’s sister-in-law lived right behind Bo. 


Bo was safe and well.  He, literally, had a community watching out for him.  Not only does it take a community to raise a child, it also takes a community recognizing the worth and dignity of every person to take care of each other.  Where would we be if that were not so?


Justice, Equity and Compassion in Human Relations


One day we were assigned to follow an Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) crew as they fed people in the community.  They first had to lead some headquarters (HQ) people to a garbage dump where the HQ people had some business and the ERV people had fed the day before.


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The HQ people told the ERV crew they couldn’t feed the garbage men because the garbage men supposedly should have access to food and water through their employers.  They didn’t, but the

ERV crew followed orders and we went on to serve in other places.  That day we helped on the serving line.  While serving, one of the women on the crew standing next to me broke into tears because she was so worried about the garbage men with no water in the heat.  Believe me.  These people are not in this work for the money.  They are in it for the 18-hour days, exhaustion, and lack of sleep.


While I was serving from another ERV a man came for a meal.  I asked him how things were going.  He replied that he had he had cleaned out his home because all the contents were lost.  Yet he said he was working.  When asked for whom he was working, he said that he didn’t have a job.  He was just helping others clean out their houses because they needed help.  Just helping”?  He had lost everything, was thinking of others, and asking, “What else is a guy to do?”


I’ll be mentioning a couple of surprises later, but this one fits here better. While working in an extremely poor neighborhood, we came upon a group of somewhat unkempt-looking white people who were all with beer in hand. Remember that I mentioned clearer connections with one’s self?  I am ashamed to admit that at that moment I had a reactive stereotypic response to these people as possibly being bigoted or racist.  They proved me wrong in about five seconds.  They had introduced me to another Vietnam vet who, like myself, had been in an airborne unit.  Jose and I chatted. Then I was told the story of their awareness of Jose’s war injury that made walking very difficult for him.  When water was rising rapidly during the storm, they knew Jose would need help.  They went to his home at their own peril in waist deep water to bring him to safety. Justice, equity, and compassion?  You bet!  Also, Bruce, learn something about looking in the mirror rather than looking out the window and pointing your finger with preconceived notions! 


Respect for the Interdependent Web of All Existence


While working the very rural east side of Galveston Bay, I saw all sorts of wildlife as well as cattle, horses and other domestic animals.   People were gathered to help round up stock to return them to safety as miles of fencing had been destroyed.  Sadly, there were dead cattle, armadillos, snakes and others of the animal kingdom. 


In addition, talk was already beginning regarding restoration of the land.  Although it had to be addressed later, I knew the bottom of Galveston Bay must have been a junkyard if the debris on land was any indication of the extent of debris spread across the bottom of the bay.


As always in these circumstances, there was help available for lost pets.  Of course, pet owners were desperately searching for beloved pets.  One day we were serving in a town called Seabrook.  We saw a man with a cat in his arms and took a meal to him.  It was just before that moment that his cat had come to him out of the pile of lumber that had been his home.  The cat had been there for almost two weeks while the man searched almost every day.  At that moment, the man didn’t give a darn about his house and wanted us to take pictures of his cat in his arms with the “pile of splintered lumber” house right behind them.  We took one with his cell phone so he could send it to friends. 

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Surprises, Learning, and Relearning


There are many surprises and much learning in theses conditions.  One of many instances of learning for me was that community is not limited by time or space. 


One day I was covering the Mental Health “desk” next to the port-a-potties near the kitchen area when I saw a nurse striding purposefully toward me.  She was clearly and intently looking at me.  I immediately thought that we had a mental health crisis situation with which to deal.  However, as I stood up, she asked, “Do you remember me?”  As I frequently I am, I was embarrassed to say, “No.”  She then said that we had served together 16 years before at Hurricane Andrew.  I then recognized her and we had a wonderful “mini-reunion.”  We had had no contact since Hurricane Andrew.  She had seen my boonie hat that I had worn at Hurricane Andrew, and by now for almost 40 years since Vietnam, and tracked me down. 


That boonie hat led to another humbling experience of self-awareness and learning or reminding.  One must be aware of one’s self while also being open to the perspective of others.  That may not sound especially profound or difficult, but living it in the moment is another matter.


While visiting a small Vietnamese fishing village, we met with a Vietnamese woman whose seafood business had been devastated.  She thanked us profusely for checking on them. I greeted her in Vietnamese.  Then she noticed my boonie hat and asked if I had been in Vietnam.  I said, “Yes.”  She hugged me and said, “Thank you for coming.”  I had received many hugs and thanks for coming to Texas at that point and it took me a moment to realize that she meant thanks for coming to Vietnam 40 years before that day.  Forty years ago I was so lost in my hate for that war or any war that I couldn’t or wouldn’t see that it was a life saving event for some.  In forty years, a Vietnamese person had never thanked me for my service.  Frankly, the opportunity had not arisen.  Her home and business had been destroyed and she was thanking me.  How humbling.


It seems that when one is at the “tip of the spear in combat” or, in this case, in the path of the devastation of the “eye of the storm” something primary happens.  Focus narrows to what is really primary and important and, simultaneously, beloved community expands to include all that is really primary and important.  That which is secondary, tertiary, etc. falls away at least for a moment in time.  Words like cooperation, commitment, connection, compassion, community, humanity, and, yes, love come to the fore.  I believe that each of us can help to expand that moment in time.  I really do.  I invite you to join me in trying every moment of every day to do so.


I will now close with a reading sent to me by one of my mental health team from Hurricane Ike.  It is entitled A Part of You  - A Part of Me.  As you listen, please allow “You “ to be singular and plural and permit “Me” to be “Us” as well. I ask this because I believe it applies to you with yourself, with another person or you with an entire community whatever form that community takes.





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                    A Part of You – A Part of Me



Every moment that we are together I am learning something and that knowledge becomes a permanent part of me.  Though my feelings will be different a year from now, or ten years from now, part of that difference is you.


Because of you, I am a different person and the person I will grow to become, with or without you by my side, will have gotten there partly because of you.  If you were not in my life right now, I could not be who I am right now, nor would I be growing in the same way.


Much of what I grow toward and change within myself, has to do with what I respond to in you, what I learn from you, what I understand about myself through you and what I learn about my feelings in the dynamics of our relationship.  I do not worry about our “future together” since we have already touched each other and affected each other’s lives on so many levels that we can never be totally removed from each other’s thoughts.


A part of me will always be you, and a part of you will always be me.  That much is certain, no matter what else happens.




Bruce L. Andrews

Unitarian Universalist Service

Sheridan, Wyoming

November 2, 2008