TWH –Whether it’s a shifting climate, rising intra-cultural tensions, or terrible luck, many natural and man-made disasters have been covered in the news of late. Hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, and even mass shootings can have similar impacts on survivors, despite the differences in cause and physical damage resulting from each. Those impacts can include psychological and spiritual harm.Although better known in Pagan circles as the executive director at Cherry Hill Seminary, Holli Emore is also trained in providing disaster spiritual care through the Red Cross. She recently returned from a trip doing just that in Las Vegas, in the wake of the concert mass shooting which recently took place.
“I wasn’t there on vacation,” she told The Wild Hunt.
It also wasn’t her first trip in recent weeks: Emore’s worked with Caribbean evacuees, and before that survivors of Irma. “I’m hoping to stay home a bit now,” she admitted.
In order to provide the kind of spiritual care required under such circumstances — and Emore says that volunteers are needed for this work throughout the country — an individual must be a trained chaplain, which in part means being able to help people in the context of their own faith practices. Professional chaplains, as well as those who are board-certified through a recognized agency or endorsed faith leaders, all fit the bill.
“Chaplaincy is a specific skill used for dealing with people in crisis,” Emore explained, and Red Cross rules are intended to make sure that no one doing that work makes things worse.
“I’ve often meant well, a lot of us mean well, but it’s good to have training.”
With that training, a chaplain helps victims draw on their own “values or faith resources, with or without religion,” and never injects values from another religious path into that work.
“One thing they teach us never to say is: ‘God must have a purpose for this,’ ” Emore said. “It’s 95% listening, much of it reflective, helping people think through and sort their own thoughts. Sometimes — not often — I pray with people.”
Emore is aware that the Red Cross organization gets a fair amount of criticism around disaster response, but she believes that its scale does have value. With many groups involved in providing aid, she said, “It’s important we’re all playing by the same rule book.” The rules , in this case, are presumably created by, or at least standardized through, Red Cross personnel.
One standard rule promulgated at Red Cross-run shelters is the idea that “this is like walking into someone’s bedroom,” Emore said. That’s why only certain people are allowed entry, and even local ministers might be shut out.
Congregants will first be asked if they would like the company, and if there’s enough interest and space it’s possible services will be held, but no one without the training will be going from bed to bed providing comfort.
“You don’t want this experience,” she said of any disaster aftermath. “Who wants to sleep in a high school gym on a cot, surrounded by stranger? It’s tough. People are strained and stressed. I spoke to one man [after Irma] who was undergoing chemo, and now this on top of that.”
Right now, the disaster occupying the headlines is historically-large wildfires in California. Emore doesn’t plan on working with that population directly, but she did offer some advice. “It’s important for people to acknowledge that they are not going to get over this overnight. They may feel fine, but these events take time to process.”
She continued, “People may feel exhausted for awhile as they process the events on a soul level, and they may need professional help, even if only once or twice.”
“It’s important to be able to let go, and accept that help. That’s okay. I can’t imagine what it’s like losing everything, like some people in California have.”
In that or any disaster, Emore said that those close to the victims “can help just by being there. ” She said, “We can’t rescue everybody, but [we] can be a caring presence. When a friend finally knows what they want, they can call you and ask for it.”
Working in Las Vegas was important to Emore in part because it reminded her of the pain in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shootings. “We were burned out,” she said of people in her community, “and we felt there must be a way to come together as a community for something spiritual, but not necessarily religious.”
The result was a ceremony of healing and peace, which has been held in several locations and with participants from many faith groups in her local area in South Carolina.
Those kinds of ceremonies and that kind of loving care are needed far from the focus of hurricanes, or shootings, or wildfires. “We’re creating a diaspora of wounded people,” Emore observed, including some 22,000 who were at the Las Vegas concert and have since returned home.
A highly mobile society results in the trauma visited in one place migrating with its victims far and wide; Emore fears that they’re “becoming kind of invisible,” and infecting their communities with that pain if they aren’t getting the support they need.
“As Pagans, maybe we should consider this, since we understand how to energetically support our community,” she said. “At least acknowledging those who have crossed over this Samhain, their pain, and wishing them peace might be a good start.”
The back-to-back-to-back disasters have stretched Red Cross resources thin, Emore said, which is why she’s hoping some readers might opt to volunteer for this work. However, her description of what it looks like is frank: “It’s 12 to 14 hour days,” she said, “but they take care of us. We need more people.”
Emore has laid the groundwork for more than just asking for help: Cherry Hill Seminary offers a chaplaincy track which would satisfy Red Cross requirements. They include courses for those who wish to offer those skills as an adjunct, like herself, as well as those who wish to make a career of the work.