After Hurricane Harvey, the writer served as a disaster spiritual care volunteer at a shelter in Houston.

Disaster spiritual care: A chaplain’s perspective

By Preston C. VanLoon, Ed.D.

Overwhelming would be one word that describes my experience as a disaster spiritual care volunteer with American Red Cross (ARC). By day, I serve as director of Spiritual Care, Advance Care Planning, and Bioethics at Sanford Health in Bismarck, N.D. However, Sept. 25-Oct. 9, 2017, I was deployed by ARC to Houston to serve those affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Serving as a disaster spiritual care volunteer was a life-changing experience. In 2005, I was on the other end of a hurricane, when Katrina hit New Orleans. After evacuating for three weeks, my wife and I returned home to see the destruction that happened to the area in which we lived. ARC was there, helping and touching lives, including ours.

I was so impressed by the work of ARC then that, when I had the opportunity to receive training as an ARC disaster spiritual care volunteer at a national chaplains’ conference, I jumped at the opportunity. It was my way to give back.

On the morning of Sept. 24, 2017, I received an email from the regional ARC chapter to deploy the next morning to Houston to help in the relief effort. A need opened for someone with my training and skill set to help serve those affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Once I arrived at the Greater Houston ARC center, I was assigned to work in a large shelter that recently opened at the site of a former Macy’s store at the end of a shopping mall. Approximately 700 ARC cots and blankets were spread throughout the shelter. They were occupied by people from all over the greater Houston area who had experienced loss from the hurricane’s flood.

As I walked throughout the shelter and mingled with those living there, story after story of loss and heartache was shared with me. One man described how, after recently coming from Ethiopia without any U.S. dollars to his name, he built his house with help from Habitat for Humanity and found a job driving a taxi. When the flooding came, it destroyed his new home, furniture, clothing and other personal belongings. His taxi was also severely damaged by the high water. In that single storm, he lost all of his material possessions as well as his only source of income.

“There is still air to breathe,” he replied, when asked what gives him hope.

A middle-aged woman shared about the death of her retired husband by dirty flood waters. When flooding destroyed their apartment, she not only lost all that they had accumulated over the years but also, more importantly, she suffered the loss of her primary source of emotional support and income. It was painful to hear her say, “Why is God punishing me? What did I do? I lost my home, my husband, and all that I have. What am I to do now?”

Also living in the shelter was a 59-year-old grandmother, her two adult children, three young grandchildren and two small dogs.

“I think God is trying to pull us all together,” she said. “There is so much hatred and division in the world that, when things like this happen, we are forced to pull together to help one another.”

As I walked throughout the shelter during those two weeks, I built relationships with fellow human beings who are cared for and loved by God. I listened to their stories and tried to offer encouragement and hope. It was a ministry of presence, being there with them in their pain and struggle. Many people helped; I was only a small piece of the puzzle. The shelter not only provided three meals a day and a place to sleep but also financial assistance from FEMA, ARC, Housing and Urban Development, Helping Hands and other organizations.

Once strangers, people from diverse backgrounds were now living only a few feet apart from each other in the shelter, trying to get back on their feet. In being present with them, I realized how Jesus came into this world to dwell with us so that we would not be alone in the storms of life. I am confident that he was present with those who were hurting in that shelter, too. It reminded me how God uses each of us to be his hands, feet, ears and mouth with those who are in need. I gave so little but received and learned so much more in return.


An American Baptist-endorsed board-certified chaplain, Preston C. VanLoon, Ed.D., serves as director of Spiritual Care, Advance Care Planning, and Bioethics at Sanford Health, Bismarck, N.D. He is currently completing the book “The Path to Forgiveness: Moving Forward with Healing and Hope One Day at a Time.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.