When disaster strikes, the thousands of threads that together make the fabric of our community and the tapestry of our culture are at risk. Not all are torn, but there will be rips in the cloth. Underlying that fabric is the spiritual life of the community: the practices, beliefs and rituals that provide meaning to life and support for all those connections.
People react very differently to disaster, even in their spiritual lives. Some will be overwhelmed by events and have traumatic stress reactions – some of which will affect their spiritual lives. Others, incongruously, can be energised. Some even say they feel more alive and connected to the divine during and immediately after a disaster than ever before. For these people, spiritual life is something immediately at hand – or newly found – rather than something lost.
For organisations that seek to encourage psychosocial well-being, attentiveness to spiritual life is essential. Apart from the personal spiritual crises that people may go through, routines are disrupted, preventing people from practicing their normal religious disciplines. Prayer places may be destroyed. Burial practices may not be recognised, causing anguish. Meditative practices may be impossible while racing to avoid danger. Honouring ancestors, elders or God may be pushed aside. Some may feel their beliefs have failed and their understanding has been mistaken. These crises of faith and disruption of spiritual practice can have effects as acute as the physical disaster itself.
It is important that people be given the opportunity to resume practice of their own faith or discipline. Evangelisation and proselytising during an emergency is inappropriate and cannot be permitted.
Every effort should be made to ensure that religious leadership from within the affected community is supported in re-establishing the community’s faith practises. If no local leadership is available, spiritual care should nevertheless be guided by the community. Space should be made available in camps or housing areas for religious observances. Responses to births, deaths and other life transitions should always reflect the spiritual beliefs of those involved and be guided by those familiar with those traditions.