Lutherans Learn From Bombing

12/13/1996 12:00:00 AM

     OKLAHOMA CITY (ELCA) -- "One of our assumptions was validated.  The church is equipped to respond in times of terrorism," said Elaine Richter, after a Dec.  6-8 training event here, "Responding to Terrorism."  Richter is associate director of Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) -- a joint ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod.
     Richter, who is also director for LCMS World Relief, cited three reasons: No matter where terrorism occurs, the church is probably already established there.  The church has the gospel which can speak so well to the fear left by an act of terrorism. The church will stay in the area long after other service agencies must leave.
     "It wasn't until the Oklahoma City bombing that we discovered that terrorism needed a special kind of response," Richter told about 60 participants representing Lutheran social ministry organizations in 19 states.  She was referring to the bombing of the Murrah Federal Office Building on April 19, 1995, that claimed 169 lives.
     "Human-induced disaster is special because the victims and the respondents are wondering whether or not there are perpetrators still in their midst," said the keynote speaker, Dr. Leila Dane, executive director, Institute for Victims of Trauma, McLean, Va.  "Whether or not the disaster is finished is not clear."
     Dane, a "political psychologist," said crisis management for a natural disaster is similar to that for terrorism in the need to process facts quickly.  "As humans we have a compulsion to rationalize," she said.  We need to understand what happened, so "rumor control" is crucial.
     "Understand the importance of the immediacy of the debriefing process" for victims and for those responding to a disaster, Dane said.
     "I have noticed in disaster response that people of religious affiliation tend to address the emotional aspects of the situation straightforwardly," she said.  "Feelings are acceptable and are not denied," so debriefing with church workers tends to be "a more wholesome response than a totally strategic, non-feeling response."
     "This is a venue in which the church has a definite role and must take the opportunity" to be involved, said Bernice Karstensen, executive director, Lutheran Social Services of Kansas and Oklahoma.  "The church loses its relevance if it doesn't step in and help," she said.  "We don't have to know all the answers, but we must be willing to wrestle with things together."
     "My goal was to help people process the trauma and then help people process the grief," said Pam Shawn, a counselor who still works with several survivors of the bombing.  "The glue that held all this together was a spiritual dimension that was already there."
     The Rev. H.  Karl Reko, ELCA Division for Global Mission, was a pastor in Times Beach, Mo., in the 1980s when that community was dealing with dioxin poisoning.  He defined several types of disasters -- from "acts of God" to "acts of war" -- to explain the different ways people react to different events.  He said making sense of terrorism "depends on justice for the responsible party."
     Ruth Reko, director for leadership development, ELCA Division for Church in Society, said terrorism is different than a natural disaster because it can't be cleaned up with brooms and building supplies.  "How do we help the pastors make sense of this from the pulpit?"
     "This kind of disaster is without easy measurement," said the Rev. Leon A.  Phillips Jr., LDR executive director.  "People can see the houses coming back on their block" after a natural disaster.  After an act of terrorism "things look normal.  The damage is inside people's lives."
     "This has significance for the church," said Phillips.  "The purpose of the gospel is to rebuild lives."
     After the group visited the site where the Murrah Building stood 20 months earlier, Phillips noted all the religious symbols that visitors had placed on the surrounding chain-link fence.  As "the custodians of those symbols," he said the church must be present.  "The spiritual element was always so close to the surface."
     "The church must look beyond where the media are focused," said Phillips.  He said news reports neglected to mention the effects of the bombing on the African-American and Latino communities around the site, especially that residents of the Regency Towers, a nearby low-income apartment building, have been displaced.
     Phillips stressed the importance of pastors already living in areas affected by disasters.  "We would be nuts to ignore those relationships" by bringing in people from outside, he said.
     Pastors don't have to be psychologists, said Phillips.  They need to do the same things they've done their entire ministries - - "listen, share hope and pray."
     "One of the best agencies for offering disaster preparedness is Lutheran Social Services of Kansas and Oklahoma," said Richter.  "They had just done a preparedness workshop in Oklahoma City several weeks before the bombing."
     "One of the models that is used is to do workshops for clergy," she said, "where ideas can be exchanged and all the phases of disaster are explained."
     Ruth Reko said a similar workshop for clergy is planned in February to help those affected by the bombing cope with emotions associated with the related trials.
     Training event participants came from Alabama, Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.

For information contact: Ann Hafften, Dir., ELCA News Service, (312)
380-2958 or AHAFFTEN@ELCA.ORG; Frank Imhoff, Assoc. Dir., (312)
380-2955 or FRANKI@ELCA.ORG; Melissa Ramirez, Assist. Dir., (312)


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