Young Argentinian boy stands in remains of town after a flood

Working on Our Spiritual Muscles for Social Justice in Disasters

By Chaplain Deborah Wacker
September 12, 2023

14 hurricanes. 41,944 wildfires. 1,078 tornadoes. Flash flooding abounds. All in a nine-month time period in 2023.

No doubt, the effects of climate change continue to accelerate. With ever more disasters, the need and level of skills for those in service positions also accelerate.

Have we, as spiritual care providers, ramped up our skills to meet the needs of more and diverse victims?

So that we are prepared, now is the time to brush up on those skill sets.

Lessons Learned

From Hurricane Katrina survivors and providers:

  • “Coordination between faith-based organizations (FBOs) and secular service providers was problematic.” 1 The lack of collaboration was a lost opportunity in the overall recovery process.
  • “One of the challenges of incorporating spiritual care providers into disaster relief and recovery was a wariness between faith-based and secular organizations around the issue of proselytizing and credentials,” 2 cites the research.
  • “Faith-based organizations and disaster chaplains could have provided a bridge between survivors’ mental health and spiritual needs.” 3

I interpret these findings as a result of both a) a misconception of what disaster chaplains actually do and can contribute, and b) the still-existent variance in the degree of skill sets among community clergy and health care chaplains.

A good disaster spiritual care provider needs to listen, validate and put a hand on your shoulder in the midst… Be able to make radical space to hold and explore big and hard emotions like fear, anger, disappointment, sadness and terror… Allow you to make your own way and facilitate unlearning the very things that will prevent you from thriving with liberation… Gently help you to somehow trust yourself to unnumb and unescape… Wade into the waters of the unknown with you until you’re up to your neck and believe that you will handle whatever happens… Intentionally sit in the silence and affirm your voice until you can use it even when it shakes… Resist the impulse to pull you to the safer ground we may be standing upon… Be patient and move slowly with you in the darkness instead of manufacturing light… Embrace the questions instead of placating answers… Help you confront the existential uncertainty and fundamental lack of control in our lives… And witness all of this following your lead so you can do it in your own way and your own time.

Research also emphasized that cultural competence was completely neglected during Hurricane Katrina recovery.4 Like crisis intervention and disaster spiritual care, education is also widely available on cultural competency and humility. Best practice disaster spiritual care now necessitates both trauma chaplaincy and cultural competence as vital skills.

Training programs are available. Community clergy can contact their state’s Department of Emergency Management, FEMA, and The Shepherd’s Shoulder to learn about educational opportunities.

While much progress has been gained since Katrina in 2005, we, as a nation, are still missing opportunities for healthy recovery if we do not identify and understand cultural differences. One spiritual care provider serving the Maui Wildfire survivors remarked that requests for mental health and spiritual care significantly increased days after initial impact, once native healers were integrated into the team.

Why is Cultural Humility a Necessity in Disaster Spiritual Care?

  • Disasters are nondiscriminatory and affect all ages, races, sexualities and genders.
  • The direct impact and evacuation effects of a disaster multiply the challenges of individuals with pre-existing disabilities, illiteracy, under-employment, health problems and housing discrimination. Simply put, disasters hit the socially marginalized the hardest. Socially marginalized groups have fewer resources to prevent, cope and adapt, with less support from family members, community and financial systems. (World Bank report, 2016)
  • Even though faith-based organizations can play a central role in disaster recovery, they have been largely excluded from disaster planning and prevention efforts.5

What Do We Know About Socially Marginalized People?

  • Social marginalization is a multi-layered problem rooted in interconnected economic, social, environmental and political systems.
  • These layers of marginalization are unseen and can manifest in fear and distrust of law enforcement and mainstream intervention services.
  • Spirituality is an important source of resiliency for many racial and ethnic minority populations in the face of hardships and inequality. Religion is deeply embedded in cultures, communities and group identities.
  • African American and Women of Color have higher rates of interpersonal violence and sexual assault – putting these women at higher risk of re-traumatization and PTSD.6
  • The hearing impaired and individuals with disabilities have higher rates of physical and psychological abuse7 – another group at higher risk of PTSD.
  • Two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and queer elderly individuals experience high rates of isolation8 – meaning they are more likely to be alone during an emergency and less likely to have a strong support system.

As disaster spiritual care providers, we must be the first to recognize the strengths that exist in each culture, as well as the practices that violate human rights and dignity.

Some Ideas on How to Increase Our Disaster Spiritual Care Muscles

  • In your disaster planning initiatives, ensure that your spiritual care teams have received specialized training in crisis intervention and trauma response, and that they have the ability to companion individuals to positive outcomes, even growth, after a catastrophic incident.
  • Maintain a current profile of the cultural composition of your community.
    • Demographics are available on, as well as state and local governmental websites.
    • Identify the role of customs and traditions, and natural support networks.
  • Identify “cultural brokers” (community leaders and organizations) that represent diverse cultural groups. Build a network for disaster spiritual care.
  • Facilitate the creation of informational resources that are culturally and linguistically competent, and recognize two-spirit and LGBTQIA+ identities.
  • Move from the concept of ‘cultural competence’ to cultural curiosity.

Culturally Competent Disaster Care

  • How are tragedy and loss understood by each subculture? How are risk and adversity faced and managed?
  • What allows individuals in this subculture to feel hopeful?
  • What are culturally acceptable reactions after a tragedy and how is distress expressed?
  • What are acceptable forms of help-seeking for this culture?

While this writing by no means is meant to be an exhaustive dissertation on culturally curious disaster spiritual care, I have attempted to highlight important components of the available research.

If we as disaster spiritual care providers can build up our muscles in cultural curiosity and humility, we will be able to recognize the convergences and disparities between the values and practices of the historically underserved, underrepresented and oppressed, and that of the dominant subculture.

If we can accomplish this, we are practicing the essence of social justice.

Chaplain Deb Wacker is the Founder-Director of The Shepherd’s Shoulder, an organization whose mission is to provide spiritual care to disaster victims, families and first responders. We offer trauma-expert training for chaplains and clinical professionals. Our team calls forth creativity, expansive thinking, systemic analysis, and an understanding of power dynamics. We speak up even when we are a lone voice. We stay true to who we are. We align ourselves with a victim’s/survivor’s needs even when the tide is against us, and we fight for what is possible. We guide ourselves and others to engage in our own healing… To lean on others with an open mind and a radically open heart… To take risks in the thick of the unknown, and to always be willing to be changed in the process.

Contact her at

  1. Alawiyah, T., Bell H., Spirituality and Faith-based Interventions: Pathways to Disaster Resilience for African American Hurricane Katrina Survivors, Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought, 30: 294, 2011 
  2. Alawiyah et al, 310 
  3. Alawiyah et all, 311 
  4. Alawiyah et al, 315 
  5. Alawiyah et al, 295 
  6. Maurya, V, Natural Disasters, Psychological Well-Being and Resilience: Concerns related to Marginalized Groups, International Journal of Research and Analytical Reviews, 6.1: 270, 2019 
  7. Mauriya, 271
  8. Goldsmith, L., Mendez, M., Hough, K., The Dialogue, Journal on Disaster Behavioral Health (SAMHSA), 18.4: 6