Helicopter fighting widespread forest fires

Out of the Ashes… Community Resilience and the Human Spirit

By Chaplain Deborah Wacker
August 18, 2023

As I write this, two of our Hawaiian islands have been decimated by wildfire to the likes of Pompeii. The effects of climate change have devastated more communities than we can track. In 2023, over 26,276 individuals have lost their lives to gun violence. There have been 431 mass shooting incidents across our nation.1

As climate change and the rates of gun violence continue to accelerate, the focus on institutional and community resiliency has become an increasingly urgent issue. Many of the advancements to date have centered on life-saving protocols and bolstering infrastructure, and rightly so.

With the rate of major trauma and loss acceleration, it is now crucial to organize, train and mobilize highly skilled spiritual care providers to round out a multi-systemic resiliency approach.

With massive psycho-social-spiritual trauma in major disasters and mass casualty incidents, clinical researchers2 have found that community resilience encompasses the following four themes: 1) Building community and enhancing social connectedness; 2) Participating in collective storytelling and validation of the trauma and response; 3) Reestablishing the rhythms and routines of life and engaging in collective healing rituals; and 4) Arriving at a positive vision of the future with renewed hope.

In each of these four areas, best practice spiritual care providers must play a meaningful, essential role.

Yes, we do mobilize a network of mental health therapists in many cases. And yes, volunteer organizations also provide care and support services.

Best Practice Spiritual Care from Disaster Beginning to Ending

What’s missing is the consistent deployment of a network of SPIRITUAL care providers – chaplains who are highly trained and experienced in trauma and resiliency. Because spirituality is such an important component in the healing process (as evidenced by a plethora of clinical research), trauma chaplains would best be deployed from the very first moments following an emergency throughout the immediate short-term and into longer-term recovery. In addition, we need to systematically develop and train working networks of faith-based and spiritually-focused organizations to be able to successfully plan and implement spiritual care response initiatives on the local, regional, state and federal levels. Many states do have faith-based networks; these initiatives can benefit from updated training and significant expansion.

There are beautiful stories of successful and effective community resiliency initiatives following mass trauma. One notable program was the creation of the Compassion Center in a local Oklahoma church, where multiple emergency and community groups were organized. Mental health services were provided and rituals fostered unity and healing. Following the World Trade Center attacks, a neighborhood resource center was created to gather and share ideas and creativity. These initiatives were all grass roots in nature, and reflect the existence of an ever-growing knowledge base from which all communities can benefit.

Community resilience can only be strengthened by more deeply and seriously incorporating spiritual care into national, state and local emergency response and preparedness – a true multi-systemic approach – due to the special skills that trauma chaplains bring to the table. From the first moments of a disaster to the days of healing following, spiritual care providers are best suited to deliver the compassionate care that will form the foundation for individual and community resilience.

It should be noted that the cognitive and existential components of the psycho-social-spiritual factors that promote individual resilience inform efforts to promote resilience to disaster at the community level.

Our spiritual care responses to disasters need to be systematized, with funding and muscle.

Disaster Spiritual Care: The Reality and The Gaps

This is where we see the gaps.

  • Currently, a network of mental health therapists is notified after an emergency in most areas. Actual deployment is not always immediate and can occur days after the event and at the discretion of the individual provider.
  • Many localities have police chaplains on call. Some do not. In many areas, these positions are not funded and are volunteer in nature. Skill sets and training curricula vary widely. Organizations such as the Red Cross offer spiritual support days after the incident, yet are understaffed.
  • Hospitals are grossly understaffed vis-à-vis spiritual care, particularly in rural communities. In rural areas, local clergy may be contacted to provide care – again, usually after the actual event and with a range of spiritual care skill sets.
  • Skill sets among spiritual care providers, particularly volunteer providers, varies widely.3

As such, there is wide variance in the implementation of Best Practice mental and spiritual health care processes across the nation. In addition, there is a lack of a formal, intentional organizational structure in many locations. Without trauma-trained, spiritual care providers as essential partners within first-responder teams and as leaders of locally-based networks of faith-based organizations, we are missing opportunities to optimize community resilience.

In Australia, spiritual care has been integrated into high-level disaster training and forms part of the government’s response to disaster. The IASC guidelines and the Sphere handbook, the humanitarian charter that documents minimum standards in disaster response, both call for consideration of spirituality and religion in creating resilient communities, and in proper care in the relief and recovery stages of disaster. Around the globe, spiritual care has worked as a bridge between scientific policy and social need based on local capacity, resources and culture.

I see the inclusion and importance of trauma-trained clinical spiritual care providers as integral to the optimal functioning of a disaster response team. How effective is a football team’s defensive line without a nose tackle or strong safety? How delicious can an orange teacake be without the essential ingredient of flour?

Spiritual care directors and networks can help our communities move to a proactive plan as opposed to an emergent reactive approach. We know what the best practices are; we need to push this knowledge out to “the boots on the ground.”

This is why this is so crucial.

  • As we know, violence and trauma jeopardize the health and wellbeing of survivors, their families and the entire community. Marginalized individuals and communities are at far greater risk of negative physical and mental health impacts. Because trauma tends to challenge people’s core values and raise questions about meaning and purpose in life,4 spirituality is an important component in the healing process from a traumatic injury.5
  • Moral injury can arise from a single event, usually catastrophic in nature and able to create a division in people’s lives that disturbs the integrity of our core identity.6 Spirituality or religiosity is used as a coping strategy for people when facing illness, injury, or end-of-life issues.7
  • Spiritual care is the best practice resource for the immediate impacts from violence and disaster, and may mitigate the severity of PTSD. According to a 2021 NIH study, best practice spiritual care promotes post traumatic adaptation and resilience.
  • The development of moral injury in the psychological literature suggests that the medicalization of psychological trauma – embodied in the diagnosis of PTSD as a mental illness – is a simplification of what it means to survive a traumatic event. The current paradigm relies on medication and counseling, but does not address the “soul issues” of hope, identity and future purpose.8 The cure for moral injury requires a different set of counseling skills from that which is provided by mental health professionals.9
  • Moral injury is essentially a spiritual existential crisis for which chaplains are best trained.10
  • The manner in which individuals are cared for in a disaster lays the groundwork for that community’s healing. There is a ripple effect from the actual incident that begins with survivors, families, and care providers.
  • Recent research underscores the importance of early intervention for those who have suffered trauma and traumatic loss.11

The most common and up-to-date psycho-social-spiritual approach to disaster and emergency is Psychological First Aid (PFA). Clinical researchers agree that spiritual care providers/chaplains are best qualified in delivering the five components of PFA: a) a sense of safety; b) a calming presence; c) a focus on self-empowerment; d) connectedness; and e) hope.

Community Resilience and Spiritual Care Resource Planning

To foster individual and community recovery from major traumatic incidents (and promote resilience), The Shepherd’s Shoulder advocates the active engagement of trauma-trained spiritual care providers/chaplains, city-based spiritual care directors, and national spiritual care leadership.

  • On the Local Level: Immediate deployment to disasters and emergencies as an integral player with first responders. How quickly and professionally we respond to incidents with spiritual care lays the groundwork for an individual’s, family’s and community’s adaptation and healing. Each city needs to have a funded Director of Disaster Spiritual Care as an essential position in emergency preparedness planning, and whose responsibilities include the development of a trained faith/spirituality-based network and the creation of best practice community support initiatives.
  • On the Local, Regional and State Levels: Development of spiritual care networks trained and ready for deployment. Best practice guidelines for support to be outlined and shared – always mindful of racial and cultural diversity.
  • On the Federal level: Inclusion of spiritual care leaders in policy development, and collaboration with local and state emergency management and spiritual care initiatives.

All of the clinical research points to the criticality of spiritual care incorporation into policy-making, leadership, organization, outreach, and first response.

In fact, Dr. Harold Koenig developed a comprehensive guide for integrating faith-based resources into local, state and national disasters in 2006. His work was at the request of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).12 Our recommendations are not entirely new.

It is time for us to stop treating disaster spiritual care as a “nicety,” but as an essential driver towards individual and community resilience. I believe we are tasked with not only maintaining the wellbeing of the physical world, but also of the human spirit.

The time is now.

Invite us to the table.

Chaplain Deborah Wacker, M.B.A., M.Div, BCCC, FHPC, is founder and director of The Shepherd’s Shoulder based in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Team members have provided spiritual care for natural disasters and two mass shootings. Their team’s mission is to provide best practice spiritual care and crisis counseling to natural and human-caused disaster victims, families and communities. The Shepherd’s Shoulder (www.shepherdsshoulder.com) provides trauma-directed and resiliency training programs for physicians, clergy and chaplains, and consulting services to communities as they incorporate spiritual care into their emergency planning.

  1. www.gunviolencearchive.org. August 10, 2023
  2. Landau, J., & Saul, J. (2004). Family and community resilience in response to major disaster. In F. Walsh and M McGoldrick (eds.) Living beyond loss: Death in the family (2nd ed.). New York: Norton
  3. Cadge, Wendy, “Training Healthcare Chaplains: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling 73, no. (December 1, 2019): 211–21, https://doi.org/10.1177/1542305019875819
  4. Janoff-Bulman, R., & Frantz, C. M. (1997). The impact of trauma on meaning: From meaningless world to meaningful life. In M. Power & C. R. Brewin (Eds.), The transformation of meaning in psychological therapies (pp. 91-106). New York: Wiley.
  5. Brillhart B. A study of spirituality and life satisfaction among persons with spinal cord injury. Rehab Nurs 2005; 30(1):31-34.
  6. Drescher, K, Nieuwsma, J and Swales, P. Morality and Moral Injury: Insights from Theology and Health Science. 2013, 55
  7. Koenig HG, Larson DB, Larson SS. Religion and coping with serious medical illness. Annals Pharmacother 2001; 35(3):352-359.
  8. FADTRC. (2016) Mental health of Australian Defence Force members and veterans. Retrieved from Canberra: Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee (FADTRC), The Senate – Commonwealth Government of Australia: http://www.aph.gov.au/senate_fadt
  9. Schreiber, M. (2015). Remedy for moral injury. Caring Connections, 1(Winter), 21-23.
  10. Townsend, T., Chaplains on front lines in the struggle to heal ‘moral injuries.’ The Washington Post. 2015
  11. Litz, B, (2004). Early intervention for trauma and traumatic loss. New York: Guilford Press
  12. Koenig, H. MD (2006) In the Wake of Disaster: Religious Responses to Terrorism and Catastrophe. Pennsylvania: Templeton Press