Christian Partnership Amidst and After the Tsunami Devastation

Where were you when the tsunami of 2005 devastated huge portions of Southeast Asia? I was celebrating the birth of Jesus, creator and savior of humankind, on a bright, sunny morning. However, it was not long before I began learning of the tsunami’s impact via reports on television. After listening to the first bits of information from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the number of fatalities seemed too low. As the days wore on, however, the numbers were undeniably catastrophic. 

The outpouring of help was also enormous. Billions of dollars were donated to hundreds, if not thousands, of organizations. Military forces from Singapore, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, the United States and others were mobilized as first responders in order to deliver life-saving necessities to victims of the disaster. It seemed the world’s heart was pouring out to those in need. The Church responded magnificently, sending people, goods, services and money through a variety of church-related ministries. 

And we know this was not and will not be the last natural disaster to affect our planet. In the ensuing months, we have seen hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts and landslides cause immeasurable anguish. 

As members of the body of Christ, we know that pain and suffering were not part of the created order that God established. Jesus came that we might have life and have it more abundantly (John 10:10).  We know that love is the greatest expression of our Christian life in Jesus (1 Corinthians 13).

Part of Jesus’ prayer as he was preparing to return to his Father was concerning this love and what it would mean to the expansion of his kingdom here on earth. John 17:20-23 tells of how Jesus’ love for the world will be heard, listened to and felt because of the unity of believers. John 17:23 says, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” His prayer is that we will be one (united), just as he and the Father are one. The result will be the expansion of the kingdom.

Can We Work Together?
Working together is not optional. As believers, disciples and followers of Jesus Christ, we should be working together. This is especially true when we have the role of proclaiming our faith through service, love and caring for the needs of widows, orphans and victims of natural disasters. Natural disasters like the tsunami provide an opportunity for Christians to work together. However, there are unique obstacles we will face as well.

Motivation. As Christians, we usually do not work together for many reasons. Yet, when disaster strikes, we are motivated to help; however the task is often so large that we intuitively know we cannot do it alone. The following are a few examples drawn from a host of possible stories about the successes and also the short-sightedness of our collaborative efforts. The first example is what happened in Singapore immediately after the tsunami struck.

A local ministry which helps to connect medical resources with health needs throughout Southeast Asia met the next day and pulled together six different Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). This level of collaboration was extremely encouraging. Over the next thirty days there were four such collaborative meetings. After three months there were fifteen NGOs and church groups working together. The original ministry then passed the facilitation of the work on to the Singapore Center for Evangelism and Mission (SCEM), which formed an email group called Disaster Hope. Throughout this period, a large amount of information and resources were shared.

These ministry leaders knew the demands were much larger than what any of them could have responded to alone. One of the key hindrances this group observed to working together was the lack of collaborative experience within local churches. Staff and/or volunteers appointed to represent the many churches did not understand the principles and methods of working together. It was a new skill set for them. This same group is now involved in efforts to help the Northwest provinces of Pakistan as well. 

Organizational Pride. Aceh, the northern province of Indonesia, was nearly completely destroyed. There is no accurate count of the dead, however, it most certainly tops 200,000 people. Aceh was known as one of the most resistant places to hearing the gospel. Christians were persecuted and outside Christian workers were banned. 

Now one year after the disaster, the majority of the tsunami victims are still in temporary tents or shacks. One interesting dynamic is that in this nearly one hundred percent Islamic region, survivors are amazed that over eighty percent of the workers and funding have come from Christian countries and communities. One of these important efforts included the establishment of AcehTeam, a cooperative venture of over a dozen organizations seeking to make a difference in Aceh province. It is their desire to become advocates for the community as they seek to stand alongside tsunami victims as they rebuild their lives and community. What a great witness to those who have for centuries persecuted the very people who are now helping them.

Yet old habits are hard to break. John, an expatriate relief worker, has commented that some work in Aceh is like a field full of silos. Each organization is working on its own, for its own credit and with little if any communication with others in the area. The urgency to produce tangible results for the organization’s management and donors has led to tremendous competitiveness and wastefulness of resources. Within the AcehTeam, it is different. John recently reminded leaders in the group that their open collaboration was rare not only in Aceh but also in the missions world.

With the influx of outside resources came many promises and hopes. But a new reality has now set in.  The rebuilding process is long and arduous and many long-term workers are left picking up the pieces of broken promises. Organizations and individuals rushed in with great intentions and many promises to help; however, as everyday operational problems arose and time constraints mounted, many left without keeping their promises. 

It is also evident that “crisis” as a catalyst for intentional cooperation is not practical. In most instances it actually leads to more chaos and isolated, individualistic ministry.

Through this experience many agencies have learned that cooperation is more than a concept and that collaboration doesn’t just happen because you go to a meeting. It requires diligence and commitment to principals that are beyond an individual organization’s own agenda items. Still, each organization’s agenda is included in the collaborative effort. We must be intentional about working together. We must understand the principles in order to make a collaborative effort work, whether for six months or six years. And planning for cooperation must take place before the “crisis” takes place. 

What about your ministry? Does your staff understand collaborative principles? Do you know when to collaborate? Do you realize that working together will produce more fruit in the long run than doing your own thing?

We should praise God for what has been accomplished for his kingdom despite and through these horrific circumstances, while continuing to pray for all those affected by these disasters. At the same time, we need to learn how, as the body of Christ, we can work together for his glory so that the world will know that just as the Father loved and sent the Son, so too he has sent and loves us.

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William Sunderland is associate director for visionSynergy, which seeks to accelerate world evangelization among the neediest and most unreached people by empowering the global ChurchÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s commitment to kingdom collaboration.