Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling / Disaster Response

Not just mucking out—CBF disaster relief chaplain Mary Nell McCoy ministers to those experiencing crisis and disaster 

By Ashleigh Bugg  

In June of 2019, Mary Nell McCoy co-led the first Disaster Spiritual Care training as a part of the CBF General Assembly in Birmingham. The Disaster Spiritual Care program is used to train chaplains to work with teams deploying to help people during crisis and disasters.

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Mary Nell McCoy (right) ministers alongside first responders as an American Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care provider.

According to McCoy, the DSC chaplains minister to emotional and spiritual needs. They practice a “ministry of presence,” where after the disaster they listen to survivors create a narrative of what has happened to them and try to help them to find comfort and connection.

The first step of disaster work is dealing with physical needs, McCoy said. “You’re going to check that they are safe, that they have food, water and shelter, and then you go from there,” she explained. “Most of the people find their emotional level is very high, the cognitive level is very low. They feel very confused, they feel alone, they feel a loss of everything around them, and their trust in God, and in society in general, has been shaken.”

“However, unlike some other disaster relief organizations, CBF disaster teams aren’t usually the first responders in a disaster,” McCoy said. They work more on long-term recovery—helping people to rebuild their homes or, perhaps, work on a church that’s been destroyed. As teams are doing the physical work, the chaplain is talking with the survivors of the disasters to offer comfort, encouragement and hope.

DSC providers (also called Disaster Relief Chaplains) minister not only to the survivors of disasters but also as spiritual leaders to the team members when deployed, providing devotions in the mornings and debriefings at the end of each day, being available to listen to team members as they experience daily stress while serving in disasters.

McCoy works with several organizations and has served in Colorado, California, North Carolina and Florida as well as other countries including Nepal and the Philippines. She has worked in deployments where people have experienced fires, floods, mudslides and typhoons.

Three years ago, the American Red Cross saw a need for Disaster Spiritual Care and created the position. McCoy went through their training and became a certified ARC Disaster Spiritual Care provider.

McCoy maintains that what people need after a disaster is the ability to be heard. 

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DSC providers minister not only to the survivors of disasters but also as spiritual leaders to the team members when deployed, providing devotions in the mornings and debriefings at the end of each day, being available to listen to team members as they experience daily stress while serving in disasters.

“What is most healing for people that have gone through disaster is listening, real listening, letting them create their own narrative of what has happened,” she said. “By allowing participants to share their stories, the recovery process can begin. They will come by and tell the same story over, and over, because as they tell their story, the cognitive level is kicking in and they’re trying to make sense out of what has happened,” McCoy added. “There is healing that comes as they tell their story.”

The idea is to allow the participants to take charge of their own recovery, while being available to listen and offer guidance when needed.  

“We don’t make decisions for them as far as next steps, but instead let them create their own steps that they need to be taking toward recovery”

McCoy is careful not to force any ideas upon participants, and she cautions against using certain language that could be counter-productive. 

“For example, you don’t want to say, ‘Oh, it’ll be okay, don’t cry. Just get through this. God won’t give you any more than you can handle,’” she explained. Survivors need to be comforted, they need to be listened to, and they don’t want to hear platitudes that are just answers to get people through.

“When I was in Nepal after the earthquakes several years ago, I had people tell me that they had been telling people the wrong things. They had told people not to cry but just get through it if they were Christian, because that would show how strong they were in their faith. But that is not how healing takes place. It’s like a grief process; it takes time. Allow people to have the time; allow them to get angry. God can take it! Allow people to have doubts and through that process, they will work through it.

McCoy began working with disaster care later in her career. She served as a student summer missionary in Alaska during her college days, and later, as a career missionary in South Korea for 17 years. Then she moved to California and was a Minister of Music in a couple of Baptist churches as well as a public-school music teacher for 17 years before retiring. Mary Nell became involved in Disaster Spiritual Care after retiring 7 years ago.

“It’s been very fulfilling for me to be able to do something totally different from what I’d done in the rest of my life,” she said. “Being able to help people, and to realize you’ve comforted people, and that they’re in a better place by the time you leave then when you first met them is very rewarding.”

McCoy offers advice for anyone wanting to be involved with disaster relief and spiritual care. Get trained and never just self-deploy. Go with teams as requested. The question then is, “How do I get trained?”

“People can become involved by taking Disaster Spiritual Care classes that CBF plans to provide not only at the annual assembly but in different states and churches in the future,” McCoy said. 

Other organizations provide training as well such as CISM (Critical Incident Stress Management). McCoy advises individuals to contact their state Baptist Disaster Relief directors and see if training can be set up in their local states or areas.

“My dream is, in time, CBF would have trained DSC providers going out with each Disaster Relief team deployed from states or churches,” she said. “I also hope to continue teaching Disaster Spiritual Care courses to train others to become involved.” 

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is aChristian Network that helps people put their faith to practice through ministry efforts, global missions and a broad community of support. The Fellowship’s mission is to serve Christians and churches as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission. Learn more at www.cbf.net. 

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