Major disasters in 2005 translate into unprecedented giving
Written by J. Bennett Guess
December 2005 - January 2006
December 1, 2005
Nearly $8 million collected in past 10 months for UCC’s disaster response
Tsunamis, drought, famine, war, locusts, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados, flooding — no matter where you live, it’s been a disastrous year. Beginning with the unimaginable devastation and death toll from the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami in southern Asia and eastern Africa, stunning TV images opened the hearts and wallets of millions. The UCC alone collected an unprecedented $4 million to support long-term rehabilitation programs.
Then, the deadly hurricanes struck Florida and the Gulf Coast just eight months later, offering horrific reminders of water’s destructive power and even prompting the general secretary of the Church of South India — a church struggling with its own disaster response — to send prayerful words of solidarity for its partner churches in the United States.
"It is with utmost grief and unspeakable shock that we in India read about the waves of Katrina that have left thousands of our dear American brothers and sisters either dead or devastated and rendered homeless," wrote Pauline Sathiamurthy.
Yet, in the time that fell between the tsunami and the hurricanes — and even since — there were dozens of other natural and human-caused calamities that claimed the lives and livelihoods of millions. In large measure, however, whether or not individuals, churches or even nations offered monetary assistance depended not so much on the scope of the destruction, but with media exposure.
"It’s how the media drives it," says Susan Sanders, the UCC’s minister for the global sharing of resources. "Those [disasters] that get the media attention are those that attract the dollars."
As of Oct. 31, the UCC had collected nearly $8 million in disaster- relief donations during 2005, and that figure doesn’t account for contributions forwarded directly to affected institutions, such as the UCC’s Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss., UCC-related Dillard University in New Orleans or the UCC’s South Central Conference, among others.
"It has certainly been a difficult disaster year, and we’re truly grateful for all the gifts," Sanders says. "This [outpouring] shows that we are a church with resources and we do share those resources."
However, more than $8 million of the impressive $8 million total has all been earmarked for tsunami and hurricane relief specifically, largely proving Sanders’ assumptions about the media’s impact.
"Our UCC folks are generous people, so when they hear about a disaster they respond," Sanders emphasizes. "But they’re not seeing Sudan, they’re not seeing Pakistan, they’re seeing very little about Niger. Our challenge is how we do we get these hidden disasters before our people."
In the summer of 2004, for example, a church-wide special appeal called upon UCC members and churches to support relief in Sudan, especially the Darfur region where genocide and famine have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, especially women and children. To date, despite a General Synod resolution in July 2005 asking for a greater church response, the UCC has gathered only $100,000 to fund its assistance in Darfur. It’s a rather-tiny response to a protracted and complex disaster, especially coming from a 1.3-million-member church with a long history of justice and peace advocacy.
Sanders doesn’t give any credence to the notion that churches or individual UCC members are suffering from so-called "compassion fatigue," the idea that emotional numbness sets in after experiencing too much bad news. Instead, she lays blame squarely on the media for whole-hog reporting on certain devastating events while practically ignoring the majority of the planet’s disasters altogether.
"The top number-one factor that drives giving is media exposure, and this is where our challenge is: How do we let our people know when it’s not in the media?"
Thankfully, the $7.5 million given thus far does not include the annual outpouring of support for the UCC’s One Great Hour of Sharing [OGHS] special mission offering, received each March, which allows the UCC’s national and international disaster-recovery offices to respond immediately to "hidden disasters," those that the general public may never be made aware. Unfortunately, in 2005, financial support for OGHS dipped from the previous year’s totals.
"Right now, we’re running $260,000 behind last year’s [OGHS] totals, and it remains to be see whether or not we’ll break the budgeted $3 million mark," Sanders says. "When locusts ate up the crop in Madagascar, no one heard about it but we were able to respond," Sanders says. "When there was flooding in New Hampshire in late October, it was just a blip on the screen, but we were able to respond."
Sanders says OGHS enables the UCC to respond to a disaster, on average, once every 2.5 days. "And, in most of these cases, folks never hear about them," she says.
UCC members can take pride, Sanders believes, in the fact that the UCC’s disaster-recovery niche is long-term, as opposed to short-term, recovery. Evidence of this, she says, is the UCC’s ongoing efforts related to September 11, 2001, and the denomination’s 46 still-to-occur work camps in Florida in response to the state’s four major hurricanes in 2004.
"There’s a whole lot of push to be there when the cameras are there, but for us, it’s to be there for the long haul," she says.