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Spring 1992 · Vol. 21 No. 1 · pp. 76–79 

Receiving Care in Crisis Situations: A Community-Wide Disaster

Lynn Jost

On March 13, 1990, at 5:42 p.m., a tornado with winds estimated at more than 250 miles per hour swept into Hesston, Kansas, on a devastating 100-mile march through five counties. Meteorologists later reported that a highly charged microburst had altered the tornado’s path just before it touched down in Hesston. The college, retirement center, mobile home park, and manufacturing plants were all saved by the tornado’s new route, but over 100 homes were badly damaged or destroyed.

Within minutes help began to arrive. Neighbors began opening their homes to the homeless. Local physicians and rescue teams located the few injured victims and administered emergency treatment. A false report about damaged water supply prompted a regional supermarket to deliver 3000 gallons of drinking water. American Red Cross and Salvation Army set up stations by nightfall.

The next morning as I was helping a parishioner sort through the rubble of what had been his home, the first Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) volunteers arrived on the scene. Before the day was over, nearly 600 MDS volunteers were active, and by weekend a volunteer bulldozer had cleared away the remains of my friend’s foundation. Emergency preparedness officials reported over 100,000 hours of volunteer assistance. The financial aid committee on which I served {77} distributed over $300,000 to communities along the tornado’s route. Local churches also contributed to victims’ needs.

The Hesston Ministerial Alliance stepped into action to coordinate relief efforts and to provide support for the pastors and other caregivers. Food and clothing distributions, short-term housing, counseling services, and vouchers for furniture and vehicles were administered by a coordinator financed by the Alliance. One of her major tasks turned out to be locating a receiver of several semi truckloads of donated clothing.

In sum, the Hesston community had opportunity to learn a great deal about receiving care in a time of crisis. Some of the lessons learned follow.


Sometimes the opportunity to receive care reveals more about us than we would care to acknowledge. We discovered several general types of receivers.

First, some are dependent sponges. They view the crisis as an opportunity to exploit the system. People that had not been damaged in any way came looking for free clothing. Others expected disaster relief for rebuilding, even though their relatively minor damage had been fully insured. Still others kept coming to the food bank long after much of life had returned to normal.

Second, some are prideful refusers. They view the receiving of assistance as admission of personal inadequacy and failure. Comments like “Save the help for those who really need it,” or “Our insurance was good enough to cover our needs,” or “No, we don’t accept charity,” identify prideful refusers.

Third, gracious receivers seem to understand that it really is appropriate to receive aid in times of trauma and crisis. They learn to work within the system but avoid using it to gain advantage.


Because the community as a whole received care from such a vast host of resources, the church found itself as a middle player, both receiving and giving, healing and being healed. The church cared/was cared for in the following ways: {78}

The church became the church of the gaps. Where community and government agencies and their programs stopped, the church became the agent for standing in the gap. The community coordinator was supplied by the ministerial alliance to assist victims in finding the appropriate relief agency. Because it was in the center of the receiving and distribution of care, the church assumed a high profile as a mediator of provision and healing.

The church became the refuge for the story of grace. Without exception, local congregations devoted the first worship gathering after the storm to a time of story telling, crying, laughing, and embracing. Bad news became good news as together we discovered that God’s love had not changed and that things could be replaced and most lives had been spared.

The church offered an opportunity to find a way to talk about God. Preachers became initiators in redefining hope and interpreting God’s role in disaster. For the most part, pastors encouraged parishioners to accept the mystery of life and to avoid making judgments about God’s directing the tornado.

The church enabled its members to receive care as part of a rebuilding process, more than as an event. Relief was experienced as a rebuilding of lives, not merely buildings.

The United Methodist Relief Manual suggests that a disaster has three major stages: the emergency, the relief, the recovery. Each stage is approximately ten times longer than the previous one. For example, if the emergency stage lasts about three days (as in the Hesston tornado), the relief stage is roughly 30 days, and the recovery, 300 days. The church helped people receive care throughout this relief and recovery period. 1

The church became a receiver of assistance in the relief task by blessing the many arms of the church. Such agencies as Mennonite Disaster Service, Salvation Army, American Red Cross, Lutheran Church Services, and United Methodist Church World Relief contributed their assets. The church was in a position to receive this assistance and to give it the ecclesiastical umbrella which made it more acceptable to its members.

The Hesston tornado put the members of this self-sufficient community in touch with the mystery of life. Massive MDS assistance relieved the very community that had organized {79} this relief organization. Pastoral caregivers found themselves so emotionally and physically drained that they had no choice but to rely on others for leadership. In doing so we, like Abraham, discovered that the God who tests is Jehovah Jireh, the Lord who provides (Genesis 21:14).


  1. As cited in an unpublished letter from Hesston Tornado Relief Coordinator, Evelyn Rouner, to Hesston Mayor John Waltner, May 10, 1990.
Lynn Jost, a pastor at the time of the Kansas tornado, is now Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

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