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Synod of the Sun working with PDA for synod-wide disaster response

Covenant among synod, its 11 presbyteries and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is the first of its kind

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

In May 2021, leaders from the Synod of the Sun joined with and served with leadership from St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Lake Charles, Louisiana. In less than 12 months, the city had suffered a direct hit from two major hurricanes, a crippling ice storm and the pandemic. The team not only surveyed damage but pitched in to help across the city. (Contributed photo)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) has entered into a covenant agreement with the Synod of the Sun and its 11 presbyteries for coordinated disaster response.

Synod of the Sun is made up of Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, states which have seen more than their fair share of disasters in recent years, including hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and winter weather.

“We never have blue sky time in Synod of the Sun,” said Valerie Young, Synod Leader and Stated Clerk, referring to PDA’s term for times when there is not an active disaster or response. “I think we’re all well aware of the fact that it’s not going to get any better in terms of natural disasters.”

The synod has seen a variety of meteorological impacts of climate change, from successive powerful hurricanes on the Gulf Coast to increasingly violent severe weather across Oklahoma, severe cold in Texas, and wildfires currently raging in the western part of the Lone Star State.

The covenant, which is a four-year pilot project, aims to increase preparedness and connections with vulnerable communities and streamline response when disaster inevitably strikes. The synod is currently searching for a director for the effort, known as the Synod Partnership for Disaster Recovery (SPDR).

Valerie Young

Young said discussion about a project to coordinate and prepare for disaster response in the synod began after Hurricane Harvey hit the Louisiana and Texas coasts in 2017. The Rev. Jim Kirk, PDA Associate for National Disaster Response, said when PDA reached out to presbyteries following disasters, they often found that there was little memory of how response had been handled the last time disaster struck.

“We come back, year after year, and very often, we would have to start at square one,” Kirk said. “We realized that it would be beneficial to have a more cohesive network within the synod so the historical memory could be maintained, and we can continue to build on what happened before to be more effective and efficient. We had an opportunity because of the funds that were available for Harvey to talk about it more than just conceptually, but to talk about it in a way that there were some resources that could be brought to the table to make this a reality.”

In the covenant, PDA agrees to financially support the program starting at 75% of the budget in the first year and declining to 50% by the fourth year, and for its Associate for National Disaster Response, Kirk, to be part of the leadership group, whose duties will include helping to recruit and evaluate candidates for the director position. If SPDR is successful, Kirk says it could be a framework for similar initiatives in other synods and areas of the county.

PDA Director the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus said programs such as SPDR are important to living into the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Matthew 25 invitation, which includes the goals of dismantling structural racism and systemic poverty.

“As a Matthew 25 Church, our commitment is to those who are most vulnerable, and if you’re prepared for yourself and for others, you’re able to reach the vulnerable more effectively,” Kraus said. “You’re also able to have an understanding of who are the vulnerable communities, who are the people who are systemically and historically excluded from access. The time to learn that and build those relationships is before a crisis occurs, so when the crisis occurs, you’re able to come alongside in a helpful way.”

The covenant has precedents in a few programs such as the Florida Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Network (FLAPDAN) and an association of presbyteries in South Carolina. But Synod of the Sun is the first synod to attempt to establish its own disaster assistance network. As Young notes, it is a diverse synod with unique cultures from New Orleans to West Texas to Indigenous American communities.

One of the aims within the covenant is to help communities not impacted by disasters better understand how they can come alongside impacted communities when needed.

“Valerie kind of led a caravan across the synod going through different presbyteries and picking up different elements that were delivered into Lake Charles and were immediately distributed to communities that needed it,” Presbytery of South Louisiana Interim General Presbyter Richard Williams said, recalling Young’s response after that community was struck by multiple storms. “And I think that we saw a spark of what it could look like if we were really serious about working together. And it didn’t just take one person in a rental car, but what if we made this into kind of a part of our fabric of how we are together?

Richard Williams

“And that’s what we’re trying to kind of take this idea of, really, we can care for each other in important ways and make it into something that’s sustainable. We’re very glad that PDA is a part of it. We’re also really proud that all of our presbyteries are a part of it, and we feel like this is a way that we can kind of help build up our own capacity to do this.”

The covenant is now in place. The key now is identifying the person with the right combination of skills to direct the program as it forms. Young says they are not coming in with a preconception of what the program should look like, but rather want it to form into what it needs to be to serve the people in the Synod of the Sun — and not just the Presbyterians.

“My ultimate hope for this position is that this person will be able to help presbyteries and congregations to understand that disaster assistance, disaster response is not just about taking care of us as Presbyterians, taking care of our own sticks and bricks,” Young said. “Disaster response is how we face out towards our community. It’s ‘how can we respond for and in our communities?’ The pandemic taught us that the church is not inside the building. This is an opportunity to help churches get out of ourselves.”

Give to One Great Hour of Sharing to enable Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to respond quickly to catastrophic events.

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