The Table Podcast

Disaster and Crisis Reaction

In this episode, Drs. Darrell L. Bock and Jamie Aten discuss how the church can react to disasters, focusing on the work of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute.

Timecodes
00:15
Aten’s experience of the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina
08:19
How was the Humanitarian Disaster Institute established?
12:12
What does the Humanitarian Disaster Institute do?
18:41
Master’s program of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute
23:44
Disaster preparation advice for churches
32:00
Ministering to refugees
39:38
Engaging human trafficking
44:44
How to apply to the Master’s program at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute
Transcript
Darrell Bock
Welcome to The Table where we discuss issues of God and culture. I’m Darrell Bock, Executive Director for Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary, and today we’re gonna discuss a special program that is – that Wheaton College has undertaken, the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and our guest is Jamie Aten, who’s Founder and Executive Director of that institute. Welcome, Jamie. We’re glad you could be with us today.
Jamie Aten
Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.
Darrell Bock
It’s pleasure. The first question we always ask when we do one of these – and our topic is how the church can come alongside people and minster to them in the midst of what often times are very challenging circumstances and situations, what sometimes insurance companies call acts of God. And Jamie’s school, Wheaton College, has just launched a program that is designed to train people in this area. How did you get into this gig, Jamie? Where did you start and how did you end up in the slot that you’re in?
Jamie Aten
By training, I’m actually a psychologist and this was nothing that I set out to do. The way that I got involved in this work was that my family and I, right out of grad school, moved to south Mississippi for my very first teaching job, and then six days later, Hurricane Katrina struck our community.
Darrell Bock
Where did you go to grad school, by the way?
Jamie Aten
I went to Indiana State University.
Darrell Bock
O.K. So you’re Midwest educated, huh?
Jamie Aten
I’m Midwest through and through.
Darrell Bock
You came to the south and experienced that great, wonderful event that we know – I’m from the gulf coast in Houston – as we know as a hurricane, which is a frighteningly powerful event that is an extreme disruptor of communities when the hurricane is powerful enough. And Katrina certainly probably was the hurricane of the last decade, just a Harvey could probably qualify as the hurricane of the decade so far in this decade. What was that like?
Jamie Aten
We found that we were totally unprepared and in fact, we didn’t even realize Katrina was headed our direction until church that Sunday morning, right before the storm hit, which came on Monday. Since we had just moved from the Chicago area, our cell phones didn’t get a signal there. We lived out in the country. We had no cable or TV signal yet. Cable person is supposed to come on Monday and so we were really disconnected. The last I knew at work on Friday was the storm was supposed to hit somewhere on the other side of Louisiana. And then that Sunday morning, the pastor gets up to the church that we were visiting and comes up and leans against the podium. In a slow southern drawl says, “If you remember Camille, you know what I’m about ready to talk about.” He then goes on to talk about this hurricane, and my wife and I are looking at each other about what do we do for a hurricane. We’re from the Midwest. If it was a tornado, we go to the basement, but there’s no basements here. What do we do? That was my introduction to Katrina and then to the disaster world.
Darrell Bock
What kind of situation did you find itself in after the hurricane?
Jamie Aten
We ended up being quite fortunate. We had roof damage and damage outdoors and lost a few things, but by and large, very, very fortunate. We had neighbors that lost everything through that disaster. And I remember still driving into our community after the storm and it just looked like the pine trees had been torpedoes, just going right through people’s homes and roofs just gone. And in some places, it looked like a bomb had gone off, where – so it was a very different scene in Mississippi versus New Orleans, where New Orleans was much more the flooding. Whereas in Mississippi, you saw much more the wind damage there.
Darrell Bock
Interesting. My son was in law school during the time of Katrina and I went down to give legal advice with some of the relief agencies down there for a time. I was down there for a few months mostly in the New Orleans area and the poor areas of New Orleans. And was very involved and got to see firsthand what hurricanes can do, which is actually pretty frightening stuff. Anyone who’s kept up with what’s gone on with Harvey and particularly what’s going on in Puerto Rico knows that the effects are lingering.
Jamie Aten
Yeah and they’re gonna continue to linger for quite some time likely.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, and that’s one of the challenges, isn’t it, of giving humanitarian disaster relief is there’s a spotlight on a disaster that comes. And everyone’s aware of it and then life moves on for most people, but the situation the people find themselves in after a disaster in the area itself that still lingers and hangs on.
Jamie Aten
Most definitely. One of the things that right after Katrina, I – as I was doing the work there and started to do research and working with churches and other relief organizations, started getting asked to speak and share about what was happening in the area and how things were going with recovery. And whenever I could, I’d always try to fly out of Biloxi, out of the airport there. And right as we would take off, I would try to take a quick snapshot of a picture of the houses down below and would get – would try to get a picture of the blue roofs. Those were the houses where people were putting tarps over to try to fix the roofs.

And anytime I would go to speak, I would ask people about how do you think the recovery is going to go. And what I noticed is within about six months, most people, if they weren’t from that area or didn’t have connections, they assumed life would go back to normal. And then I would pull up on the screen behind me a picture of all these blue roofs to highlight the damage. And I continued to do that for years actually. I could still get images of blue roofs taking off from that airport. That for many people, it can take years if – in some cases, the psychological and even spiritual impact may last a lifetime.

Darrell Bock
In fact, I’m from – I am from Houston, and Houston and Dallas both absorbed a ton of people particularly from the New Orleans area after that hurricane. Had to take care of them for a very long time and in fact, some people never went back. It can be a dislocating event for a lot of people and they actually have to start from scratch with their lives all over again.
Jamie Aten
In fact, we actually were down in Houston after Harvey within just a few weeks doing research and training there. And we saw something similar when we went down to the Baton Rouge area after the flooding back in 2016, where you had a lot of people that were displaced from Katrina that had moved to these two different geographic locations which were heavily populated by Katrina evacuees. That stayed and who were hit again, and what we found in our research was those that – and this is pretty obvious, but those that went through Katrina and then were affected again tended to struggle even more.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, sure. The impact of losing everything that you’re used to having around you is pretty devastating psychologically. And what am I telling you, you’re a psychologist, but still. Like I say, most people think oh, you just turn the page, but this page doesn’t turn quite so easily.
Jamie Aten
One of the things that has already stood out to me in my memory since Katrina was there was a cartoonist actually up in Jackson after the storm that had made a real simple cartoon for the paper out of there. And it was simply a timeline is all it was, just a simple timeline. And it had a BK and an AK, before Katrina and after Katrina. And one of the things that I’ve seen from studying disasters these last 12 years and across the globe has been no matter where we’ve gone or what the disaster has been, often times that disaster splits people’s experience into this was life before and now this is life afterwards. That it really does make a lasting impact on many people.
Darrell Bock
Interesting. Let’s talk a little bit about the institute itself and what led to its formation, and what it seeks to take a look at and how it operates. You said you were the founder as well as the executive director. So I can’t think of asking anyone more qualified to talk about its roots and origins. Tell us a little bit about the institute and then we’ll turn our attention to the program that comes out of it.
Jamie Aten
Great. Our institute, the Humanitarian Disaster Institute, is the country’s very first Christian and faith based academic disaster research center. There’s a few other disaster research centers out there, but we’re the first ones to really focus in on faith based issues. And our main mission is to equip local churches to better prepare and care in a disaster filled world. And we do that through training and through research, consultation, and through resource development. And we initially got our start, like I shared, it does trace back to Katrina. I remember on the ground seeing so many churches do great work and Christian relief organizations doing great work, but I also saw many people that sometimes caused harm unintentionally or that there – they were often replicating the wheel.

I remember there was a church group in Biloxi and another one over in Gulfport who’d spend about six months and a lot of money and a lot of resources developing a manual on how to respond. And then both of them were very disappointed when I was asked to come in and consult to share with them that there were already five of those manuals already free online. And so just realized there wasn’t really a hub where people could go for trusted information to figure out how to respond. And so that’s what eventually led and gave birth to the institute here at Wheaton once I got here.

Darrell Bock
And so before it became a formal program, what did that involve?
Jamie Aten
I was very fortunate that was actually part of the negotiations with me coming to Wheaton College was making it very clearly known that I had really hoped to start an institute. Because one of the things that I had seen when I was working, when the disaster was in my own backyard, were individuals or groups that would just come and parachute in, and take from the community and leave. Granted, there is a need for groups to come in and provide relief, but I also saw that – especially researchers, if you don’t have an infrastructure, then you’re never really giving back to those that are providing the data and the experience that you’re learning from. And so really saw some groups like the Rain Corporation and a major research center out of UCLA and Tulane that I also had a chance to collaborate with, and saw how having that infrastructure allowed them to walk alongside communities for the long term. And also not just work in one disaster zone, but you could actually be working in multiple places if you had the right infrastructure.
Darrell Bock
You said you’re the first such organization that’s Christian, at least is allocated a Christian institution. You said there are other such organizations. What are some of those?
Jamie Aten
There’s others that are doing just really great work that have been around a lot longer. One of the very first ones was a disaster research center out of University of Delaware. And most of its emphasis is on engineering and infrastructure rebuilding, those types of issues. And then there’s also groups out there like in New York out of one of the universities that focuses specifically on disaster mental health. Another one that does disaster mental health out of North Dakota University there, the Disaster Mental Health Institute. But where we’ve really tried to find our space is to come in and walk alongside the faith communities.
Darrell Bock
Faith communities, is that only churches or is that nonprofits in the area and that kind of thing?
Jamie Aten
Both. The way that we go about approaching work is that we don’t go anywhere without an invitation. We wanna make sure that we don’t come in and accidentally help add to that overload of the local capacity. I saw examples in different disasters where people coming in who weren’t necessarily invited or weren’t part of a formalized response would come in and then suddenly they were stranded. They didn’t have a place to stay. They didn’t have food or resources. So then the people that were hit the hardest now are taking care of the volunteers. We would try to avoid that by always making sure that we’ve been invited by the local community when we go and respond.
Darrell Bock
This gets into an area I did wanna talk about which is things that people do that actually don’t contribute or help the situation, but actually harm it. And I take it that’s one of them, that you just – a group comes in uninvited. No one knows they’re coming and all of the sudden, here’s another group of people that have to be taken care of and attention is – becomes divided.
Jamie Aten
Exactly and so one of the things that – one of the mantras that we often share with groups that we work with is to tell them not to be an SUV, a spontaneous unaffiliated volunteer. Now at the same time, to put that in context, we’re not saying don’t reach out and help your neighbor in the event of a disaster. Quite the opposite, that – one of my favorite examples of all time was in Louisiana in 2016, where maybe you’ve heard of the Cajun Navy.
Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Jamie Aten
You had a group of folks that had a skill. They were fisherman and worked in the boating industry, and really came to the relief of those in need. And had it not been for them, many more people would’ve likely died from that flood.
Darrell Bock
Are you talking about in Baton Rouge?
Jamie Aten
Yeah, in Baton Rouge.
Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Jamie Aten
That’s an example where it happened in your community and you have a skill and you’re helping your neighbor, but that’s very different than, for instance, someone who, let’s say, is living in Indiana. Sees that there’s the flood and decides you know what, I’m just gonna hop a plane and fly in or just drive down tonight on my own to help. That’s the one that we wanna curb and say okay, wait a minute. Back up and is there an organization that’s already doing work that you can plug into or do you have local ties where you can actually go down and help a neighbor, somebody that you’re gonna be able to go down and know that there’s need. It becomes more hectic when we just jump in the vehicle and take off to help without being connected in some way prior.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, the Cajun Navy was very important to Houston as well. There was a lot of reporting on the role they had. Of course the Houston hurricane was much more about water than it was wind and so a Navy was necessary ‘cause the city had become not just a port stop, but it had become an ocean itself. It was pretty messy.
Jamie Aten
Yeah, most definitely. One of the other things that I would really encourage groups who are – or individuals even that wanna help is make sure that we’re helping with humility. That sometimes when a disaster hits, we think we know what that community needs and more often than not, we’re wrong. And one of the best ways we can help obviously is through prayer, but in terms of another way that we can help is giving to organizations or volunteering through organizations. And we wanna make sure that we don’t do the sort of thing where we just start sending goods without hearing from that local community or trusted organizations that goods are actually needed.
Darrell Bock
‘Cause again, there’s the whole logistics level. The logistics are strained in an area when a disaster comes and when you add to the logistical load without it feeding into an established – some kind of established pipeline, you’re actually getting in the way, aren’t you?
Jamie Aten
Indeed. That’s totally the case and the other thing is sometimes even our good intentions though can cause more harm or just become wasteful. One of the examples that often comes to mind for me after Katrina was there was a church that actually raised $60,000 and they rented a semi truck and hired a driver. And filled that entire back end of that truck with frozen microwaveable meals and they sent them down to the coast, but there were two big problems. There was no electricity so there was no way to keep the food cold. And even if you had a way of cooking it, it was gonna go bad because you didn’t have electricity. They ended up having $60,000 worth of food just rot along the side of the road.
Darrell Bock
Oh, wow.
Jamie Aten
We wanna make sure that we’re helping.
Darrell Bock
I take it the institute helps people get prepared and then helps with the structuring how you do relief. What else does the institute do?
Jamie Aten
Yeah, so one of the things that we always try to start with is research. That we wanna make sure that the guidance and recommendations that we provide are based on our faith and our science. That again, that we can make these recommendations and have a strong sense of confidence that what we’re recommending really is going to provide aid to those who have been impacted. And so we do a lot of research. Just thinking about this past fall, we were studying all the major hurricanes that hit. We were doing research over in Mexico. We’ve been doing research in Botswana. We’ve got projects going on right now in eight different countries.
Darrell Bock
And that research involves what’s effective, the psychological impact on people, or all those things? What does the research involve?
Jamie Aten
Yeah, it’s really all of the above, but one of the main drivers is we’re trying to understand how does going through a disaster impact people’s faith and how does our faith help us live more resilient in times of disaster. And then how is it connected to our emotional well being as well. And then from that, we use that knowledge to then develop interventions and resources that we then train others in how to use.
Darrell Bock
I’m probably gonna come back to this on the other side of the break. We’ve got a little bit of time before then. One of the questions I will be asking is so I’m a local church, what can I do? But I’m gonna save that. I’m just signaling to you that we’re gonna discuss it. What else does the institute do or at least what is the – let me ask it this way. The master’s program that you’ve developed, what is involved in that?
Jamie Aten
We’re very excited about the master’s program. For us, it’s really taking that mission statement of equipping the church to better preparing care to that next level. What we’re getting ready to do now is to help train the next generation of professional Christian relief and development workers. These are folks that’ll be equipped to go out and work in Christian relief agencies. Maybe they might work with emergency management groups or they might be working in nonprofits and tackling issues related to disasters like the refugee crisis or trying to stop human trafficking, for example.
Darrell Bock
You’re really talking about a full range of experiences that aren’t just the weather events and that kind of thing that suddenly plunge someone into a situation. You’re talking about longer term kinds of situations that involve the diaspora movement that’s going on in the world right now, et cetera because of political situations, et cetera.
Jamie Aten
Exactly. For us, we really see disasters as a biblical justice issue and that as Christians and as part of the church that we have a moral obligation to respond. When these events strike, you may have head it said before that disasters don’t discriminate, which to a point, that’s true. Any of us can be affected. Yet when we take a closer look, we see that it’s typically the poor and the marginalized and those with the fewer resources that tend to be impacted the most by a disaster. And so that involves things like poverty that may make some of these disasters even more difficult for people. You can’t just respond just to the event. We have to also think larger about what are some of the unnatural disasters that may be making it worse for people and how can we as Christians intervene.
Darrell Bock
And of course when you’re talking about concerns for justice and that kind of thing, you’re also talking about compassion and love for your neighbor and those kinds of values as well, which are certainly central Christian values.
Jamie Aten
Yeah and as an institute and at the heart of our master’s program really lies the verse of Micah 6:8. We really wanna equip our students to go forward and to do so with humility and to promote mercy and justice.
Darrell Bock
Interesting. What does that program look like just in terms of its – let’s assume for the sake of this discussion I’m younger than I am and thinking about coming to Wheaton. And the issue of doing Christian disaster relief is attractive. What am I walking into? What kind of a program is involved? What would the structure of the program look like?
Jamie Aten
We actually have two main tracks for our master’s program. The first one is a one year on campus traditional residency track. What we’re finding that most of the students that are applying to that one tend to be maybe straight out of undergrad studies or maybe they’ve been working for a few years and realizing I’m just really having this sense of calling to help in this way, but really don’t know where to start. I didn’t go to school for that. That tends to be who we’re largely attracting for the on campus one year program.

But then we also have a two year part time hybrid program. Even you could actually come join us if you wanted. No matter really what stage of life a person is in, in that one what we’re noticing tends to be people that have already maybe been working out in the field for some time already and they’re wanting to come back and get some new skills or they’re looking to advance in their career. Maybe they’ve been out 8 to 15 years, but we’re also finding a lot of people who have worked and been quite successful in a different sector. Maybe medicine, for example, even. And now after eight or ten years of practicing medicine realizing I’m really feeling this strong call that I wanna go and work in an international setting and do humanitarian medicine, for example. And so are looking to combine a skill or expertise they’ve already got and now use it in a new way.

Darrell Bock
Do you have any partnerships with nonprofits that work in this area? I take it you’re set up to help them to train some of their people for the kinds of work – kind of work they will be doing.
Jamie Aten
Exactly and that’s taken on a lot of different forms. And one way that we’re doing that is that we have a number of partnership agreements with different organizations that our students will go out and do field work with and do internships and volunteer through to gain more on the ground experience. But at the same time, also inviting those partner organizations to send their staff to us as well for additional training. One example of that would be that right now we’re partnering with the Accord Network, which is a large association of around 100 different Christian relief and humanitarian organizations where we’re working with them to be able to provide a discount for their students or their staff who become our students. And to be able to help prepare them for the work that they’re engaged in presently.
Darrell Bock
That’s interesting. Okay, so I’m a church. Let’s assume I’m located say on the gulf coast or something like that, where the odds are good that at one point or another, a visitation will happen. And there will be a hurricane event or something like that or maybe even in certain parts of the Midwest, we could have devastating tornados that have the same kind of impact on particular communities. What advice do you give to a church to be prepared for that ahead of time?
Jamie Aten
Getting ready for a disaster is a really – is a major challenge for many congregations. I think a lot of that starts with a couple of reasons. One is that just by human nature, we don’t like to think that bad things are going to happen to us. And then on top of that, we tend to be really, really bad at actually predicting what we’re most at risk for. I’ll never forget it was probably about three years or so after Katrina and I’d been asked to come up to the Mississippi delta and work with a group of pastors and churches up there to help them to get ready for disasters. And so I show up to this large pastors conference and I get the introduction, and the very first thing somebody sitting out there asks me is, “Why are you even here. There’s never been a hurricane that’s made it all the way up to the delta.” And so in the back of my head, I’m thinking oh, this is gonna be a really fun morning together. This is gonna be great.
Darrell Bock
Show me why I need you [laughs].
Jamie Aten
Exactly and pretty much telling me you’re wasting our time.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, right.
Jamie Aten
That was the southern between the lines there. Bless his heart that he came up here. And so I was getting my thoughts together, thinking about how do I even respond to this. And about that time, a train goes by and it’s so loud behind the church, I actually have to stop and just wait for it to pass before could even be heard. And so as soon as it goes by, I pause for a moment and I ask that pastor and the others sitting there in the room about where’s that train going to and from. And somebody pipes up of, “Oh, it’s going from along the coast with the oil fields and the chemical plant on up further north to the refinery and to such and such chemical plant up that direction.” And then there’s this pause and then it hit them all that right there, right behind them went some very deadly fuel and chemicals. If there was a derailment could put their entire community at harm.

We’re not, again, just talking about these big disasters or terrorism. It really can be even these crises like this. And so one of the things that I would encourage churches to do is to try to better understand what are the actual risks in their community, but even maybe more important than that is to ask themselves who has God called that church to do and what has God equipped the church to do. If you have a, for example, a very strong children’s ministry, then start there. If you already have an active ministry caring for the homeless, start there as a means to preparing.

Darrell Bock
And you’re right. The way in which disasters can happen is surprising – we’ve had – we’ve certainly heard how Amtrak has been unable to stay on the tracks here lately in a variety of ways with a variety of disasters. And that puts pressure – intense pressure on the communities that are closest to those kinds of events. And so I take it that some level – there’s some level of preparation and there’s got to be some nimbleness in terms of what you might be prepared to do.
Jamie Aten
That’s spot on. One of the most important things to do when preparing for a disaster isn’t just the plan, but it’s also having the right people around the plan that really counts. In the event of the disaster happening, you just can’t predict how things are gonna fully play out. There are steps you can take and that you can plan for and that you can help mitigate, but at the end of the day, you’ve gotta have the right people within that congregation carrying out the plan, who are gonna be able to be flexible and roll with the changes that are going to inevitably happen.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, because you don’t know what you’re actually gonna have available to you as you step into this space that needs help. Your example with the food and the refrigerators is a good classic example, it seems to me, of something that in your planning, you might go we can expect to be able to do this. And low and behold when you get there, you find out no, that’s not available to us. We’re gonna have to think of plan B.
Jamie Aten
And on top of that, you wanna make sure that the plan isn’t being held just by one person. It was interesting. A couple of years ago, I was having lunch with a friend and in walks in another friend of mine who happens to be a pastor at a local church here in the Wheaton area. And he’s with another one of his staff there from the church. And we start talking and he asks what is it you do, and I start talking about disasters. And the staff members shares, “Oh, you know what? We really should have a disaster plan.” And my friend pipes up, “We have one.” Here’s somebody who’s been a part of this church as a staff member for several years and doesn’t realize that the church even has a plan. Too often, we make a plan and we think our work’s done, and it goes on a shelf and it gets dusty. If that’s the case, you might as well not even have one.
Darrell Bock
And again, I suspect, too, that the – part of the having the right people in place is – if I can say this, having the right kind of people in place who are emotionally capable of dealing with this nimbleness that inevitably is a part of a disaster or what a disaster requires in order to be dealt with.
Jamie Aten
Sometimes churches may have a large enough staff that they may even have maybe somebody on the executive team that’s – or facilities that might be over risk management. But more often than not, most congregations don’t have that sort of luxury. And the problem is sometimes it’ll fall only on the shoulders of the primary pastor, but they’re gonna be overwhelmed with all these other duties in the event of a disaster. Ideally, you’ll either have a volunteer or maybe even an extended staff person that can take the lead and then form a really strong volunteer group around that person. You really have to have a champion to carry this out.
Darrell Bock
That’s one element of it. You said there’s a one year program and then there’s a – how long – how does the second program work that’s not so residential, I guess?
Jamie Aten
That one, we really tried to make the hybrid program for people that are already working full time and maybe it’s – they’re in a stage of life where it makes it difficult to relocate or they’re in the job that they just wanna advance and don’t wanna leave. With that program, the way that we have it set up is people will come this coming August for two weeks on campus for face to face training. And then the – they’ll come back to campus two other times over two years, so just a total of four weeks on campus. And then the rest of it is all online.
Darrell Bock
That’s part of the flexibility that’s being introduced in some of the programs in the graduate school and – where the model is a little bit different than the normal. It’s hard to do disaster in a classroom, right?
Jamie Aten
Right. And the other thing, too, is that I – when we were forming the program, I was reaching out to some of our alum from the college that have gone out to work in the relief world. And they were saying, “Jamie, if this program was around when the Haiti earthquake hit and if there hadn’t been an option for some sort of online, you would’ve lost probably most of your students because all of your students would’ve been called up by their organizations to spend that whole year in Haiti.” They were saying you wanna have both of those so that you can really meet people where they’re at with the unique context in which we work.
Darrell Bock
That’s fascinating. Let’s shift gears a little bit. Let’s talk a little bit about the refugee situation ‘cause that’s a distinct kind of problem. And we’ve done podcasts with people who had relief organizations. We’ve had them tell the story of – I said let’s tell the story of what it’s – what it can be like for someone who is forced out of the Middle East or forced out of certain Asian countries and they’re looking to relocate. What’s their experience like? It’s pretty challenging in many ways. Most of them don’t end up in refugee places. They have to go from place to place, fending on their own. When you’re training people to deal with refugees, what is it that you’re focused on as you go about that kind of training?
Jamie Aten
When we’re helping others to get prepared to work with refugees, we’re really trying to help them better understand the larger context. As we talk about the current refugee crisis, this isn’t something that’s only been happening since the last elections. That seems to be when most people became aware of it. This has been going on for a really, really long time and trying to help them understand what are these factors that have led to this crisis and how does that all interplay. And then also helping them to understand the refugee experience. The average refugee tends to be on the waitlist to get resettled for somewhere around 17 years before that actually ever happening for them, release them to the United States.

And then on top of that, understanding the challenges of those individuals when they do relocate. For example, we did a study and got to walk alongside some women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and found that these Congolese women, almost all of them had been survivors of gender based violence while they were in the Congo at the time. And then they come to the United States and find that now they’re alone. They don’t understand the culture. They feel even more isolated. In many ways, they experience a whole second wave of trauma from just the cultural experience.

Darrell Bock
I’m just processing. Imagine in effect your life being in limbo for 17 years. Most people, that would be extremely psychologically challenging.
Jamie Aten
Most definitely. In fact, just this morning, I have three daughters and I was taking them to school. And because we’re in Chicago right now, there’s a fair amount of snow and sticking out of the snow, one of my daughters reads a sign that says we are not afraid. And she asks me, “Dad, what is that sign about?” And then I went onto explain to her that she was only seeing the very top part of the sign. Right below it, it says we welcome refugees. And so I was telling her what the rest of the sign was and she’s like, “Why would people be afraid of refugees?” So I was explaining this to her, why some people are afraid. And then I said, “But girls, I want you to understand. Could you imagine what if a war happened here in Wheaton? I would not want us to stay here. I would want to do best for you girls and I would do what I could to protect you, and that might mean that we as a family would have to flee. Could you imagine what that would be like? Refugees aren’t someone to be afraid of. They’re people like us.”
Darrell Bock
And the human challenge of caring for someone who’s been displaced for that kind of period of time, not knowing what their future holds, where they’re eventually gonna live, the idea for many refugees they not only are displaced, but they ended up landing in a culture where they don’t know the language. They don’t know the culture. They don’t know the people. They don’t have any contacts, et cetera. A terrifically challenging human experience in many ways.
Jamie Aten
That’s one of the reasons why I think as Christians, we need to be active not only in providing direct care and working through our local churches, but also becoming advocates. We are speaking out on behalf of refugees within our communities, but then that we’re also doing what we can in terms of policy, supporting organizations like World Relief that have been doing this work for a long time. And they’re facing their own challenges. There’s also opportunities for the church to come alongside other Christian parachurch organizations like World Relief or World Vision and IAFR is another one that comes to mind for me. That is another way that we can help.
Darrell Bock
Sometimes people will detach this kind of work from the idea of Christian mission and yet in many ways, it is the testimony that gives credibility to us as we think about what it is that we’re doing and why it is that we’re doing it.
Jamie Aten
Yeah, I think in times of disasters – we had Phillip Yancy, the bestselling author, come speak at our annual disaster ministry conference a few years ago, which by the way, will happen again this June for those that might be interested. And when Yancy was speaking, he talked about that doing disaster work is really hands to heart evangelism. We’re really putting our faith into practice and we’re meeting people’s needs in practical ways. And in doing so, we’re really giving the gospel – we’re really embodying that as we’re caring for others.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, I see it as building your credibility so that when you share with a person that God cares for you or God loves for you or whatever and they’ve seen Christians demonstrate that care, there’s a credibility that comes. Sometimes someone asks the question why are you taking your time and your energy to help me. You don’t know me from anybody. And people perceive that even if they may not have the language to express it. And that opens the door for all kinds of possibilities.
Jamie Aten
And I often think about the examples of Christ sharing to those who were hurting. He didn’t just share the good news and then be like, oh, good luck with that blindness thing, hope that works out for you and leave. He also took care of what the real need was in addition to the spiritual need.
Darrell Bock
Yeah and I like to reverse that picture. In other words, to say I may not be able to help someone with blindness, but I can care for them as a person. And so it’s very, very important that be communicated, et cetera. Now I take it that some of your program walks into these areas as well and discusses the circumstances and situations of refugees and that kind of thing.
Jamie Aten
Yeah, so for us, disasters aren’t just a single event and that often times that unnatural disasters make it worse. For example, if you think about comparing the Haiti earthquake to the China earthquake or the Italy earthquake, that all of those were actually very similar in terms of the population size and densities where they struck. They were very similar in terms of the overall size of the actual earthquakes, yet we saw Haiti and China suffer a lot more losses in terms of life and resources. And one of the reasons for that is poverty that’s there, government corruption that was happening. We tackle issues of poverty and development in our program and then we also help our students to understand that these disasters are connected to things like the refugee crisis or to climate change. Human trafficking would be another key example.
Darrell Bock
Now you mentioned that you deal with that as well, which is – fascinates me in the sense of it shows how big a category disaster is and how we mistreat one another is certainly a disastrous situation. Talk a little bit about that and is the issue in relationship to human trafficking, for lack of a better description and I may misspeak here, the process of rescuing someone out of it, which means that they’re gonna be relocated and go through – well, obviously there’s the psychological trauma of what they’ve been in, but also establishing the ability to have a new life.
Jamie Aten
Yeah, when a disaster strikes, it makes the most vulnerable even more vulnerable and makes them vulnerable in particular to being exploited. For example, you mentioned about being from Houston. Right there in the Houston area shortly after the disaster, there were online ads all over the place talking about if you’re a woman of a certain age, send a picture, I can help you if you’ve lost everything. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that person was a trafficker on the other side of that ad, but it’s an example of how there are people for sure out there ready to take advantage of individuals who have lost everything. We also see – so that’s an example from Houston.

Another one would be what I saw in Haiti after the earthquake, where there were a lot of children that were orphaned and – or maybe lost one parent and then traffickers would come in and say oh, we promise to give your child a better life, give them to us and we’ll help them find a loving family in the city. Only to take that child and put them into a slavery situation after the earthquake. Or another example would be after Katrina that it’s – would be even labor trafficking, which people sometimes forget. There was a major case there where about 400 or 500 individuals from India had been promised to come over to the U.S. by a job searching organization and said if you come here, you’ll have a great job, we’ll help you get a visa and all of this. Only to really take them hostage and actually keep them guarded at night with armed guards and force them to stay, and then even pay for being here and took advantage of those men that were trafficked in that way.

Darrell Bock
The trafficking part of your program looks at those realities and deals with care, rescue. How does that part of it work?
Jamie Aten
One of the ways that our program is structured is that we have classes that delve into these challenging topics, but at the same time, our courses are also designed to prepare students with a set of competencies that will give them the skills that they need, whether they’re going to be on the ground, boots on the ground or even if they’re gonna work as maybe in a leadership role within the headquarters, for example, or fundraising even. They have this wide realm of skills that then they can apply to help address these different challenges.
Darrell Bock
So you’re developing the nimbleness in the person to be able to deal with whatever may come across their desk because in one sense what I’m hearing through everything that’s being said is there – you can plan for a disaster, but there’s no way to plan for a disaster. You have to respond to what’s on the ground.
Jamie Aten
That is part of the plan.
Darrell Bock
Yeah [laughs].
Jamie Aten
That’s part of it, that you need to be aware that there are things that you can do and there are things you can control, but then what do you do for the unexpected? And so you’re drilling that into people so that they have that flexibility, so that they can adapt quickly. Because when a disaster strikes – for instance, we often will take teams of students with us either maybe to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya or maybe it’s to different disaster zones like Harvey, for example. And when we go, one of the things that the students realize is that the plan we have in place to help and response by 8:00 a.m. is going to be different typically by about 10:00 a.m. And everybody ends up pitching in and helping with all the different roles just because the need is too great for one person to be able to handle.
Darrell Bock
And you discover things that you didn’t realize walking in that are in fact the reality that you have to cope with.
Jamie Aten
Yeah, because every disaster is different. One of the things that made an impression on me after the Louisiana flood that happened in 2016 was when we went down there. Just all of the sudden, we started hearing people talking about having dry guilt and what they were talking about was survivor’s guilt, but they were saying that they were having that because maybe my house stayed dry and my neighbor lost everything. Or I had a few people that even talked about having minnow guilt, like the tiny fish. That well, yes, I had flooding, but I only had two feet and my neighbor had six feet. There’s that sense of guilt. Every disaster will – sometimes takes on its own phenomenon or unique challenge that is happening just to that particular group.
Darrell Bock
If someone were interested in this kind of training, how would they find out about it? Is there a website to go to, that kind of thing?
Jamie Aten
I would encourage them to go wheaton/hdi and when – excuse me, wheaton.edu/hdi and you can find out more about the program there.
Darrell Bock
So HDI is the abbreviation for Human Disaster Institute – or Humanitarian Disaster Institute and how long would that process take? It’s just like a normal application process in getting into a school?
Jamie Aten
Yes, it’s a normal application. Now just to let folks know who are listening that our deadline is coming up on March 1st, but we also realize you may just be hearing about this for the first time. Don’t let that veer you from applying. Just reach out to us by email and we would be glad to work with you.
Darrell Bock
Is that March 1st in every year or is it – does that date change and it’s just early in – sometime in early March every year?
Jamie Aten
It’s typically March 1st for us yearly, but at the same time, we also realize that there may be some flexibility depending on – for instance, if we still happen to have a slot available, we might be able to still admit somebody beyond that.
Darrell Bock
Okay. Well, Jamie, I really thank you for coming on and walking us through your program and telling us a little bit about the institute, what’s motivated you, giving some discussion of the Christian values that form around it. It’s been a very, very informative exercise. I know I’ve learned a lot in listening to this and really do appreciate the effort and the reflection that goes into designing a program like this and of course then executing it. We really do appreciate you taking the time to be with us today.
Jamie Aten
Thanks for having me.
Darrell Bock
And we thank you for being a part of The Table and we hope you’ll come back again soon, and we hope that what you’ve heard today inspires and encourages you to think about the way you care for those around you and the issues that sometimes that reflects.
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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than forty books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Jamie Aten
Jamie Aten (Ph.D., Indiana State University) is the Founder and Executive Director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and holds the Rech Endowed Chair. His research focuses on the psychology of religion/spirituality and disasters, which has been supported by over $6 million in grant funding. He is the co-author or co-editor of 7 academic books, including the Disaster Ministry Handbook (InterVarsity Press) and Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma (APA Books). In 2016, he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion Award at the White House. He was also awarded the 2010 American Psychological Association Division 36 (Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality) Early Career Award.
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