In 2018, Sister Sharon Eubank visited a Church-operated command center coordinating disaster relief after a deadly wildfire incinerated much of Paradise, California, and other neighboring communities.
Directing the command center was a stake president who worked tirelessly to serve those displaced by the blaze. That dutiful stake president, she soon learned, was himself a victim of the wildfire. He too had lost his home to the flames.
But despite that stake president’s own struggles and fears, he continued to serve.
“He was not [serving] because of an assignment or a personal agenda, he was doing it out of community spirit and brotherly love and because he loves the place where he lives,” said Sister Eubank. “That example of sacrifice is what drives this kind of work — and it binds us together as human beings.
“It’s the only good thing that comes out of a disaster.”
Sister Eubank, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency and director of Latter-day Saint Charities, shared that defining memory Monday, April 26, during a panel discussion with California lawmakers and representatives from several different religious disaster relief organizations.
The panelists gathered virtually to discuss how to best care for folks impacted by disaster while assisting California state leaders best prepare for effective disaster response.
Californians have endured several crises in recent years — including massive wildfires, earthquakes and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Established relationships and trust between faiths and community leaders are essential to relieving people affected by such disasters was the consensus of the panelists.
Monday’s panelists agreed that the optimal moment for faith-based humanitarian response organizations to build ties with their government counterparts is not in the aftermath of earthquakes, wildfires, pandemics or other disasters.
Instead, partnerships established long before disaster strikes best help alleviate suffering.
Sister Eubank noted that the Church is the second-largest faith denomination in California with some 1,200 congregations. The Church also has a long history providing humanitarian relief in the Golden State that stretches back to the California Gold Rush.
“One of its first large scale projects was to organize food after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire,” she said.
The Church and other faith-based organizations, said California Assemblymember Ken Cooley, remain essential players in disaster relief efforts. “When something bad happens, they are often the first on the scene — and the last to leave.”
In her introductory remarks, Sister Eubank identified five guiding questions that anchor the Church’s volunteer approach to disaster response:
1. Does the Church’s response activity fit into the local government’s strategic plans and priorities?
Latter-day Saints Charities does not have its own agenda, she said. Church coordination with local officials is critical so efforts are not duplicated. Such coordination at the heart of every disaster response.
2. What activities will the beneficiaries themselves participate in?
“Human instinct is to cocoon people who have lost everything in a disaster,” she said. “But mental health experts share the benefits of involving them in the work. It helps them process their loss and feel the friendship and support of others around them.”
3. How will other community volunteers be involved?
Emergency responses that ask volunteers from differing communities to work together can be an “extremely effective” way of lowering prejudices and weaving community fabric, she added. It is the silver lining opportunity in every disaster.
4. Is the activity sustainable?
A specific solution must solve similar problems when they arise again. “Is it a Band-Aid,” she asked, “or does it attack the root problem?”
5. And finally, is it a local solution that can be replicated again by local people and resources?
Addressing long-term needs are essential to recovery, added Sister Eubank.
News coverage of a specific disaster eventually subsides and first-response resources are soon refocused on new disasters. But local congregations, she said, can help those affected by disaster in their own community “with their employment needs, their emotional resilience needs … and by taking advantage of bridges we have built so we are stronger.”
Andres Molina, the director of Catholic Charities of California, echoed Sister Eubank’s belief in the importance of local congregations assisting their neighbors with their long-term recovery.
“We try to help our congregations build sustainable projects,” he said.
William Jessup University President John Jackson noted that communication and trust between civic and faith-based humanitarian response organizations is vital. “We all need to be on the same page when disaster strikes,” he said during the panel discussion.
Mike Bivins, who directs the California Baptist office of disaster relief, emphasized the importance of effective communication between faith-based organizations and the communities they serve.
Regardless of the doctrinal differences separating faith-based relief organizations, they all share a common goal: to lift the burdens of those in need.
There is only one requirement to be served, said Molina. “And that is to have an unmet need.”