Baptist disaster officials tackle cooperation, volunteer background checks

Meeting near Philadelphia this week, the NABF Disaster Response Network discussed how to avoid ministry overlap and how to screen volunteers for criminal and sexual history.

By Jeff Brumley

Baptist disaster-response leaders from around the nation gathered near Philadelphia Wednesday and Thursday to hammer out how they can improve interdenominational coordination and swap best practices when ministering to communities impacted by catastrophe.

Members of the North American Baptist Fellowship’s Disaster Response Network also took up the sensitive topic of background checks for disaster volunteers, sparking questions about if and how to screen people who are eager to help in times of crisis.

The group, which meets twice a year, has 25 member organizations ranging from the American Baptist Churches USA and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. Their gathering this week at the ABC-USA headquarters in King of Prussia, Pa., coincided with the Baptist World Alliance executive committee meeting nearby and the NABF’s FutureBaptists convocation today and Friday in Philadelphia.

The need for better coordination during disaster events became evident the last two years as varied Baptist organizations along with other faith and secular groups responded to tornadoes in Oklahoma and other places, to the aftermath of the deadly explosion in West, Texas, and to Hurricane Sandy.

“Sometimes you see five different ministries working a street,” said Jack Cobb, national disaster relief coordinator for American Baptist Men USA. “There has to be a better way.”

Cobb’s comment came during a discussion of best practices that various members use to help them streamline disaster-response operations.

One of those was staging targeted recovery events in communities hit by man-made and natural devastation, said Marla Bearden, disaster response specialist with the BGCT and one of three conveners of the NABF network.

marla bearden 1In 2013 those included events like “Loving West” and “Loving Oklahoma,” in which hundreds of volunteers were recruited for a week of intense service in the Texas town devestated by an April fertilizer plant explosion and in Moore and other Oklahoma towns hit by a wave of tornadoes.

The benefit of the approach is the centralized coordination that prevents duplication of efforts among volunteers representing wide-ranging faith groups, Bearden said.

At CBF, officials learned that it helps to contract with a local disaster-relief expert as a way of managing immediate and long-term operations in impacted areas, said Tommy Deal, the Fellowship’s national disaster response coordinator.

They did that last year in Oklahoma, where First Baptist Church of Norman member Jill Hatcher was tapped for six months to coordinate the state and national Fellowship’s tornado recovery efforts.

tommydealIn many cases, including Loving Oklahoma, Hatcher also became the point person for other groups’ projects because her local network helped to avoid overlapping efforts, Deal said.

“She was able to help people connect in ways they never thought possible,” Deal said.

Cobb said American Baptist Men volunteers witnessed that process firsthand.

“It was great having a knowledgeable person” on the scene when out-of-town groups arrived in Oklahoma, Cobb said. “As a collective community we have to get a mechanism where we are not reinventing the wheel every time.”

Bearden, who led the disaster response network’s meetings Wednesday and today, said members may also need to get onto the same page in providing credentials increasingly required by authorities for volunteers working in disaster zones.

And that, she added, often means performing background checks on regular and new volunteers.

Bearden said the BGCT uses a website through which it screens all potential volunteers older than 18 for criminal and sexual convictions.

Another agency that performs background checks is North Carolina Baptist Men, said its disaster relief coordinator, Gaylon Moss.

gaylon-mossWhile the practice protects agencies from potential liability, it also creates new dilemmas for disaster-response leaders, Moss said.

“The hard part is, if you have a violation, does that always mean you can’t come?” he said, referring to white-collar convictions or non-sexual offenses that occurred years ago.

“To me it’s gotten more complicated because now I am making these judgment calls,” Moss said. “We want to be full of grace and mercy” while also protecting communities and the organization.

Deal said CBF is currently looking into initiating background checks for volunteers. He asked Bearden and Moss how it works when volunteers walk up at a disaster area and want to help.

It’s OK to require some volunteers to skip working a specific disaster event if their background checks are pending, Moss said.

The group also discussed if and how to provide identification badges for volunteers, training for some kinds of work, including chainsaw use, and the most cost-effective ways to provide insurance coverage for volunteers. 

Another lively topic included how rigidly to enforce rules around safety gear and clothing. Bearden said one volunteer in Oklahoma was seen doing roof work in flip-flops.

Insurance often will not cover injuries if the volunteer wasn’t properly attired for the work being done, Moss added.

The group also discussed whether the network should apply for membership in the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, or VOAD.

The organization is the clearinghouse for faith and secular groups who want official clearance to work in disaster zones. The group decided to form a task force to study the benefits and drawbacks of joining VOAD.

They decided their next 2014 meeting will be held Aug. 27-28 in Lake Charles, La.