Leading when Natural Disasters Strike
Editor’s Note: During the first weekend of May 2010, Nashville, Tennessee, and surrounding areas experienced record-breaking flooding that killed several and displaced thousands. Here, worship pastor Nathan Loxley describes how 24church in Pleasant View, Teneessee, came to the immediate aid of their community. Loxley’s story reminds us of the critical role of the church in responding to local and global disaster relief.
As an official grown-up, the word “birthday” does little more for me than highlight a date on the calendar. The adult world has taken that day and all but stripped away the anticipation and excitement it used to inspire. My birthdays are becoming more and more lackluster as the years slip by, but this year things were different. I was treated to French food with my family and friends and surprised when those friends loaded my children in their car so my wife and I could enjoy a movie together. It was perfect.
But as I think back to that Friday night, I wish I could say the pageantry surrounding my birthday was what made it such a memorable one. Unfortunately, what transpired in the days following would overshadow the memory of that special night. With a flash and a clap of thunder the rain began to fall on middle Tennessee. The storm pounded Nashville and surrounding areas with more than 13 inches of rain. So much rain, in fact, that my city, my neighbors, and my life would never be the same.
My name is Nathan Loxley. I live in a small town just north of Nashville and have the privilege to serve as the worship pastor in a local church. After 24 hours of rain and images of houses floating down interstates, it’s not surprising that our services on Sunday, May 2, were not as well attended as usual. Our conversations focused on the imminent flood. As I watched the rain pelt the parking lot, I saw a member of our church exit the room where we hold service frantically talking on his cell phone. It didn’t take a pastor’s sixth sense to know what he was frantic about—water. The second he ended his call he approached me and asked me a question that made my heart sink, “Do you know anyone with a boat?” His mother, who lives on the bank of the Cumberland River, was stranded and the only way to reach her was by boat.
This is really happening, I thought. This is the type of thing that only happens to other people. But it was happening to my neighbors—people I know, people I’ve committed to love and serve as a pastor. I was left with only one question, What are we going to do?
As 24church we try to be as socially involved as we can in our surrounding community. With God’s grace, we’re striving to meet the physical and spiritual needs of our neighbors on a daily basis. But we’d never faced such an immediate and dire need that we were so unequipped to attend to. We had no clue where to start. One thing I’ve learned in my tenure as a minister is that God provides us with resources so we can use them for His glory. In our ministry, money isn’t the most abundant of our resources. However, God has blessed us with a warehouse-turned-church building. There’s no permanent seating where we meet, and we quickly realized that a big empty room doubles as a great place to house people whose homes were swept away.
We knew that opening up our building as a shelter met an immediate need, but the worst of the flooding was far from over. Monday, May 3, brought new developments in an unfolding crisis. The sheer amount of water forced government officials to release more water through the dams into an already swollen river system. This meant more homes under water, more people in need of rescue, and more lives completely relocated. Volunteers from our church did what they could to move families out of their houses before the waters rose. The experience was one I will never forget, as people were soon to lose everything they had and were powerless to stop it.
What I learned that day was that God uses normal people with willing hearts to display His compassion. As I watched, I saw individuals who just wanted to help their neighbors, seeking nothing in return. They waded through murky water to help complete strangers salvage any shred of hope from their crumbling lives. Is that not a perfect picture of what God has done for us in the person and work of Jesus Christ?
After the water returned to its normal level, a new wave of opportunities to minister became apparent. A catastrophic flood creates an overwhelming amount of problems, which means limitless ways to get involved in the disaster recovery and relief. How could we be of the most assistance with what we have? After prayerful consideration we decided that the most effective strategy for us to employ was to focus all of our efforts in one of the most severely affected areas.
Our goal is to walk beside this community through the entire recovery process. We’re committed to show its residents God’s love by ripping down their walls, helping them apply for government aid, educating them about flood recovery, providing them with supplies, and rebuilding their walls until they’ve either relocated or rebuilt their lives. Our purpose is to develop meaningful and lasting relationships with these families. We know that God has given us an opportunity to share His recovery and restoration—the gospel—in word and action to our new neighbors and friends.
Throughout the recovery efforts, I’ve become increasingly aware of the great responsibility we as followers of Christ have to be there when our neighbors are in need. How can we as the church deny charity, mercy, compassion, and grace to our fellow man when even as sinners Christ offered Himself up for us, and in doing so lavished God’s charity, mercy, compassion, and grace freely on us?
The whole of Scripture teaches that God’s character makes a case for our social involvement.
“[God] remains faithful forever, executing justice for the exploited and giving food to the hungry. The LORD frees prisoners. The LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD raises up those who are oppressed. The LORD loves the righteous. The LORD protects foreigners and helps the fatherless and the widow, but He frustrates the ways of the wicked” (Psalm 146:6-9).
In Psalm 9 we learn that God “does not forget the cry of the afflicted.” The Old Testament is very clear that He isn’t pleased with those who neglect the poor. Take Isaiah 58 for example. God calls the peoples’ fasting and obedience to His commandments a transgression. They believed that their “righteous” acts deserved God’s attention, and in doing so fasted for themselves. God wasn’t and will never be impressed by what we can do for Him. He tells them that the fast He chooses is to feed the hungry, give the homeless a home, and let the oppressed go free (vv. 6-7). He promises that if they give themselves to the hungry and meet the needs of the afflicted, then He’ll guide them and satisfy their desires (vv. 9-11). In the New Testament we’re directed to live lives of love and sacrifice. This is most clearly supported by Jesus’ response when asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” in Matthew 22:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
If we love God then we must love our neighbor.
I propose the same question that was racing through my mind just a few weeks ago, “What are you going to do?” It may be that you’re reading this and are close to the greater Nashville area. If so then there are thousands of people who need your help. Our city will be forever changed for the glory of God when churches consider their responsibility to the gospel and take action. Leaders, know that God has already given you resources to make an impact in this city. Pastors, encourage your congregations to sacrifice their time, abilities, and finances. Set the example by volunteering where your help is needed.
You might be miles away from this situation, and in that case this might be the first time you’ve heard of the severity of our situation. If so there are ways for you to get involved. Partner with churches in our area, send volunteer teams, and pray for us.
Most importantly, don’t wait for a disaster to bear the burdens of your community. They are in need now. In our greatest time of need, Jesus came to us. When we were drowning in our sin He rescued us by taking our place. The way we involve ourselves in our community should reflect God’s grace to us.
I was right. My city, my neighbors, and my life will never be the same. As for birthdays, there’s always next year.
Love God. Love people. Live gospel.
Photo courtesy of Ashley Krulikowski.
About the Author
Nathan Loxley is the worship pastor at 24church in Pleasant View, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife, Rachel, and their two kids. He is also a member of the band Making Malorie.