Bishop Burton Discusses the Role of Church Members in Responding to Disaster

Contributed By Melissa Merrill, Church News and Events

  • 2011-09-13

“If we are good disciples of Jesus Christ, we will do what He would do if He were here, and that is to reach out and love and help … our fellow man.”— Bishop H. David Burton, Presiding Bishop of the Church

The headlines are familiar. Earthquakes. Tsunamis. Floods. Hurricanes. Fires. Tornadoes. Volcanic eruptions. (Read about Church humanitarian efforts during recent disasters.)

Prophets throughout time and even the Savior Himself have warned of trouble in the last days (see, for instance, Matthew 24, Mormon 8, D&C 45, and Joseph Smith—Matthew 1.)

So how are Latter-day Saints living in such times to act when they themselves or their neighbors face such calamities? Bishop H. David Burton, Presiding Bishop of the Church, has offered counsel—both about responding in times of disaster and about finding purpose amid devastation.

“Before we came here, we were told that [earth life] would not be easy—that we would have adversity, challenges, and experiences,” Bishop Burton said in an interview with Church News and Events. “I think that recovering from natural disasters is part of that life experience. How do we handle ourselves when adversity strikes? Part of that great learning process is thinking about the eternal nature of life.”

Responding to Disasters

The Church’s general welfare committee—which consists of the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the Presiding Bishopric, and the Relief Society general presidency—holds responsibility for disaster relief at the general level of the Church, Bishop Burton explained. The group meets often to discuss issues and seek inspiration to provide resources in the best possible way for local priesthood leaders.

“I like to think that as we lay out the resources of the Church, we—by inspiration—strategically place them where they can be most accessible and do the most good for local priesthood leaders,” he said.

And it’s there—at the local level—that the “first line of defense” is provided in disaster relief.

“When we talk about ‘the Church’ offering help in times of disaster, we’re really talking about the people [in the Church]—your local friends and neighbors in your surrounding ward,” he said. “When disasters are larger, the response might include stakes or even areas of the Church.

“Our strategy has always been that local priesthood leaders try to meet the needs at the local level with whatever support they may require from the institution of the Church,” Bishop Burton continued. This may include things like personal hygiene or cleaning supplies, which the Church collects and stores for occasions when people have been displaced from their homes.

Priesthood keys play a significant role in the execution of relief efforts, Bishop Burton said.

“Priesthood keys entitle [local priesthood leaders] to inspiration as they direct the affairs of assisting their members. … Yes, we have the modern conveniences of electronics. [But] we all know that sometimes in disasters those tools are not available or very reliable. Our bishops, stake presidents, and others are inspired by our Father in Heaven to give direction as required at the local level,” Bishop Burton said.

One example of this came in the aftermath of the May 22 tornado in Joplin, Missouri, USA.

The morning after the tornado, Bishop Chris Hoffman of the Joplin First Ward met with several other brothers from the ward at a central spot in town to begin accounting and assessing. But they weren’t sure where to start or whom to go visit first. With communication lines down, the group turned to prayer. “The answers came,” Bishop Hoffman said. “They always did. They always will.”

In another instance, a bishop in Japan whose congregation was at the heart of the Sendai earthquake wasn’t sure how to check on members of the ward. Gas was not readily available, and roads were congested. Yet this bishop “got on a motorbike and made it his business to see and find every member of his flock,” Bishop Burton said.

Finding Purpose in Disaster

That same priesthood leader, Bishop Burton said, was also very instrumental in rallying his ward to help one another. Consequently, the ward drew much closer than they had been before the earthquake.

“There is no question that out of adversity come tremendous benefits,” Bishop Burton said. “One of those benefits I’ve noticed over the years is that adversity bonds people together—it bonds wards, it bonds stakes, and it bonds communities in a way that perhaps nothing else does.

“Now please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying we ought to have disasters in order to have bonding. But I am saying that out of that adversity comes a unique feeling as we reach out and realize we’re all brothers and sisters. That bonding process is a wonderful ‘side benefit.’”

That was the case for members of the Church and the community in North Dakota, USA, who were affected by severe flooding in June 2011.

“It’s just a ‘can-do’ spirit,” said Janelle Williams of the Minot First Ward, one of two units in the affected areas. “On every corner people with trucks and trailers [were] just pitching in and helping.”

Bishop Burton also cited people in the Intermountain West in the United States who had gathered to protect each other’s homes and fields from flooding during the summer of 2011. He also commented on people in the Philippines, where “a number of disasters” ranging from typhoons to earthquakes to volcanoes frequently “seem to befall communities.”

“Those amazing Filipino people survive because they have learned that they can help one another, and they understand the benefit of uniting with each other to reach out as they go about recovering from these disasters,” Bishop Burton said.

But those directly affected by disasters are not the only ones who are blessed by the opportunity to reach out. Bishop Burton received reports about wards in all parts of Japan who, even “when the news had hardly sounded” about the Sendai earthquake, started wondering what they could do to assist the people there.

“Bishops have reported what a spiritual feeling it was to help and what that feeling has done to affect the lives of those who were the givers as well as those who were recipients of their service,” Bishop Burton said.

Similar things happened in Peru following the 2007 earthquake there. Bishop Burton recalled that quorums and Relief Societies from all over the region pitched in to help others rebuild their homes.

“There is a strong camaraderie that comes [when] people who have not known one another [get] callouses on their hands digging foundations and doing all the things that are necessary to help people recover,” Bishop Burton said.

He emphasized that regular, everyday members of the Church can respond to disasters in their area “in a host of ways.”

“Certainly the first thing that comes to mind is a little muscle,” Bishop Burton said. “Muscle is the common ingredient for virtually every disaster. Things need to be cleaned up. People need to be helped. Roofs need to be repaired. There are a myriad of things that are critical. Members can be very proactive in such volunteerism as they respond to their priesthood leaders in an organized way.”

Just listening to those who have been through traumatic situations is also widely needed. “One of the things we have learned … is how important it is for people who have lost virtually everything to have someone they can talk to and tell them what’s on their minds. That takes patience and longsuffering, but we’ve learned that it’s an important ingredient in the recovery process.”

Those who live in regions where they may not be called on to offer physical labor or even to be physically present can help by providing other resources. Donations to the Church Humanitarian Fund (which can be made using a standard tithing slip) go “a long way,” Bishop Burton said. “We have the opportunity to use our excess cash—a dollar here, five dollars there—and when millions of Latter-day Saints do that, it adds up. It gives the Church the resources to respond to disasters and other humanitarian needs.”

“Disasters are probably more important for the salvation of those who are givers than those who are the recipients,” he continued. “If we are good disciples of Jesus Christ, we will do what He would do if He were here, and that is to reach out and love and help and be respectful of our fellow man.”

Bishop Burton recognizes and feels grateful for the many Latter-day Saints who are faithfully following in the Savior’s footsteps in reaching out to their brothers and sisters.

“I express appreciation to the many millions around the world who make it possible for the Church to be very proactive in this humanitarian endeavor that we’re about, not only for their generosity in terms of funds but for their generosity in terms of their time and their concern. I express from the bottom of my heart appreciation for those who are about our Father in Heaven’s business—caring for each other.”