2 minute readDisaster, Volunteers

Red Cross Offers Disaster Spiritual Care to Flood Survivors in Louisiana

For the past 17 years, Tim Serban has served as a volunteer with the American Red Cross. Yet, he doesn’t deliver food, water nor even relief supplies like thousands of his volunteer counterparts across the country who drop everything in times of crisis to help those in need. Instead, he provides help through spiritual care.

“We ensure the whole person is supported,” said Serban. “We walk alongside both those who are impacted as well as our volunteers who are spending weeks on end supporting those in need,” said Serban.

Today, nearly two weeks following devastating floods in Louisiana, more than 2,400 people continue seeking shelter in Louisiana through the Red Cross. Tim is working tirelessly to help coordinate spiritual care teams on the ground where rain flooded much of the state with more than 6.9 trillion gallons of water.

“This is a big, big disaster,” said Serban. “This is one that I think rivals Sandy and that is one of the largest disasters we have experienced.”

It’s a little known fact that the Red Cross even deploys Spiritual Care teams during times of disaster – but Tim says it’s a critical part of the response and recovery process and offers tremendous support for those suffering.

During times of crisis, disaster spiritual care volunteers often find that people need more than food, water and shelter. These are often the worst days of their lives, and volunteers find that those who have lost so much typically seek spiritual meaning and comfort.

“We help to orient them in disaster shelters,” said Serban. “We provide support that is appropriate for each person as they request it and work to meet the short-term spiritual needs of those directly impacted by disaster.”

“Often, people in shelters will be reaching out trying to find a way to connect to their faith community,” said Serban.  “They may be displaced altogether from their geographic community, and they may have a need to have support. So if they have a particular faith tradition, then we do all we can to help connect them to their ministers and their pastors.”

Sometimes a volunteer will offer to pray with those suffering, whether individually or communally, and sometimes it’s enough to simply provide a listening ear and compassion.

“There is the Christian tradition, there are those who are Buddhist, those who are Muslim, those who are Jewish,” said Serban. “Each tradition has their respected rituals and processes.”

Tim says they also work with community faith-based leaders who want to offer support, however he says it is important for anyone entering shelters to be respectful and appropriate.

“When we are in those shelters, it is as if we are walking into their rooms in their homes,” said Serban. “We have very specific areas that we really want to make sure continue to be respected as their sleep area.”

Spiritual care volunteers respect the Fundamental Principles of the global Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The principles ensure that services are provided with neutrality and impartiality in a way that supports the Red Cross mission to alleviate human suffering.

“We ensure that we are supportive of the whole person, body, mind and spirit,” said Serban.

Residents of a Red Cross shelter praying on Aug. 13 at a shelter established for those affected by flooding in Louisiana.

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  1. I know how well our spiritual care team provides for those suffering, but why is it our organization is continually running after stories appear in the media, we need those in the know to get our story out before problems arise I think our biggest problem is that we lack depth of experience in the field

  2. To whom it May Concern:

    I am a Christian who believed in the Red Cross up until I received a disturbing email regarding the Red Cross in Louisiana. A Christian person was ministering to the poor people who were affected by the flood in Baton Rouge, LA, and he was told to leave…he had a Bible in his hand and he was praying with some of the people. A Red Cross volunteer asked him to leave, and he asked what was the reason, and he pointed to the Bible in his hand, and he was escorted away.
    Your Red Cross Blood Bank buses come to our church regularly for blood given by our congregation, and supplies have been sent to Louisiana during the flood disaster. Yes, I am upset as a Christian and American citizen, and you should be ashamed of your behavior. I will not support the Red Cross again until this matter is cleared up.

    Thank you

  3. @Sally We appreciate your leaving this message, and want to give a big “thank you!” for your church’s role in hosting blood drives. Regarding the email you mentioned, we apologize for any confusion around the issue of prayer in Red Cross shelters. Faith is an important part of helping people recover after a disaster, and people in our shelters are always welcome to pray, read their bibles and gather among themselves–we simply ask that they are respectful of others. If a shelter resident would like to speak with a spiritual advisor, the Red Cross can help to facilitate that connection. When needed, we can also provide private spaces for residents to pray and engage in religious activities with their preferred spiritual advisors.

  4. I thought the American Red Cross was originally christian affiliated. Just like the red crescent is Muslim affiliated.

    The story about the road blocks the Red Cross put up that dissuaded a police officer from praying was disappointing and does not actually support the all inclusiveness policy that is touted by the Red Cross. It seems, the all inclusive policy is okay unless it is Christian or mentions Jesus Christ. Otherwise, the likelihood of a Muslim, Hindu or any other minority religion praying in a public space is very small so in essence the freedom of religion has been effectively silenced.

    Again very disappointing to hear. With all due respect, I respect your decision to hinder christian prayer but I think I will be donating to other organizations like the Salvation Army or the local fire and police stations.



  5. @Eric Hi! Thanks for writing with your concerns. We sincerely apologize for any confusion around the issue of prayer in Red Cross shelters. Please know that people in our shelters are always welcome to pray, read their bibles and gather among themselves. We simply ask that they are respectful of others. As described in this blog post, faith is an important part of helping people recover after a disaster.

    As far as our founding, the idea for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) came from Henry Dunant in 1859, after a battle in Solferino, Italy. After the organization’s official founding in 1919, the first objective of the IFRC was to improve the health of people in countries that had suffered greatly during the four years of war. Today, the Movement provides protection and assistance to people affected by disasters and conflicts.

    You can read more about the history here: http://www.ifrc.org/en/who-we-are/history/, and the different emblems here: http://www.ifrc.org/en/who-we-are/the-movement/emblems/.

  6. While I can appreciate your desire to serve all religions, your position is much like that of our government that defines the First Amendment as allowing religious expression so long as it stays inside the walls of the church. This is not what the founders used as a definition, nor should it be that used by any publicly supported organization. I have donated to the Red Cross for over 50 years, but I’ll find other organizations to receive my funds in the future.

  7. @Ronald We are so grateful for your donations over the years. Thank you for your support. To clarify anything you may have heard, please know people in Red Cross shelters are always welcome to pray, read their bibles and gather among themselves. We simply ask that they are respectful of others. We know faith is an important part of helping people recover after a disaster, and sincerely apologize for any confusion around the issue of prayer in our shelters.

  8. I to was taken back by this incident. I assume it was a volunteer that didn’t know the policy but it implies that the Red Cross only allows ministers to pray with the people.
    Ministers are not the only ones who can pray. Anyone can pray and should be allowed. If there was a sign in sheet they should of just allowed the police officer to sign in rather than ask him to leave. And just because someone carries a bible or any scriptures they should not have to leave.
    I think this was handled poorly!

  9. As I drove our Emergency Response Vehicle through a devastated neighborhood in Denham Springs Louisiana last week, I noticed 3 women in the front yard of a particular home wiping tears from their eyes. As we stopped to feed folks in need, I stepped out to check on these ladies. I approached the first two women trying my best to gently and compassionately ask if they were ‘ok’…their response was that they were going to be fine but their mother was just having a very difficult time dealing with the roof high…yard wide…ever growing pile of 60 plus years of history. All was destroyed and stacked in front of her there. She would come out of the house often, only to see the pile growing and would be brought to tears again…and again…and again. I approached Bessie with arms out…she immediately did the same. She hugged me tightly..I reciprocated. It must have been a 30 second hug and with my lips close to her ear I asked..”Bessie, is it OK if I pray?”. Without hesitation she said “PLEASE”. As I began to hold her by name before God in prayer, I could feel her start to ease her tight hug into a relaxed embrace. We separated a bit, still holding each others arms, she smiled and said “thank you so much”. I began to share with her the importance of ‘memories’ and about the wonderful stories behind all that she was looking at in that ever changing pile at the curb. I encouraged her to allow God to remind her of all the wonderful moments she had stored in her heart that engulfed all that was in the pile. She began to nod in affirmation that ‘things’ could be replaced and that ‘special things’ could be alive again in her memory….the one thing that was NOT destroyed by the flood. We had a marvelous few moments together.
    Had I been in a Red Cross shelter with Bessie, I would have certainly approached her just as I did at her home and I would have quietly asked for permission to pray. However, I would have moved to a quiet spot in respect for her privacy and for the privacy of others who may have been offended by my audible prayer for Bessie.
    There is a time and place for EVERYTHING. Some folks, even police officers, need to be sensitive to the right time and place for EVERYTHING…particularly in a shelter.
    I simply ask now that all who think something is awry with the Red Cross, and question why and or how things are done with the Red Cross in a disaster… to please, PLEASE reconsider your love offerings to this organization. Please read, talk, and ask people who were, and still are, ‘boots on the ground’ to get the truth. There is always another side to the story.
    One more quick example: for those who would mock the feeding effort by posting negative information about the two chicken nuggets and small portions of ‘sides’ they may have been offered for supper. PLEASE know when we have 250 meals on our vehicle to serve…and we find 325 people who haven’t had a warm meal in two days…we become emotionally, compassionately compelled to give everyone something instead of forcing some to go without. We are truly sorry if a full meal was not provided to you.

    Come volunteer…come serve with us. There is always a need.

  10. as far as the two chicken nuggets meal,i think the public needs to know these meals are donated by another organization but ithink needs a documented menu of what is quantity & weight [approx] of each portion ,i seen in first deployment in monroe of another erv driver said people complaining of tiny scoop of barbeque on bigger bun by several people being served by correctional inmates ,i think i would be offended if i was given these meals,because of the professionalism of the red cross & the way we show up big but these meals that [not for sure if we have an official oversight daily person to inspect or have erv drivers take pictures of meals each day and senf to feeding supervisor to stay on top of and look professional as red cross is all other areas.

  11. It would be reassuring if the Red Cross at its highest level of
    leadership would explicitly repudiate the actions of the person
    in Louisiana which have gotten so much attention. I am a longtime
    blood donor who is still concerned about this incident.

  12. It has been my experience that members of the disaster spiritual care team with the Red Cross provide spiritual care, which includes praying with people if they desire this — but spiritual care is broader than any one specific religion. The disaster spiritual care team is part of the Mental Health team within the Red Cross. You have to be a board certified chaplain to be a part of the team, and undergo some training through the Red Cross before you are deployed. But I was not adequately trained, nor did I experience several of my supervisors being fair or understanding regarding certain events that transpired during my deployment. I also experienced grave disorder with regard to the relief operation as a whole to where citizens’ needs were not being met. I think the Red Cross does a great deal of good, but there are things I personally experienced that have permanently turned me off from the Red Cross for good. I prefer to contribute to other relief agencies. As for disaster spiritual care, in truth, the chaplains who are on the front line during a disaster are not Red Cross Chaplains — they are on the periphery — the chaplains who are on the front line who make the most difference in people’s lives during a disaster are the chaplains with law enforcement and Fire departments. Honestly, I may have helped one or two families during my deployment in a significant way — but real impact is actually made by the First Responders and their chaplains — not chaplains with the Red Cross. For that reason, I was formally trained as a police and fire chaplain, and that is where I choose to now serve. And my training for this was far more thorough than any training I received through the American Red Cross. And I find the people in law enforcement and fire are far more professional in their behavior. This is strictly my own opinion, but it is an informed opinion.