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Seeking better church response to traumatic events

April 17, 2015
Christina Gray

Few pastors have the knowledge or experience to apply effective “psychological and spiritual first aid” to their parishioners in the wake of a disaster or tragedy, according to a former Marin County church worker.

Mike Morison hopes to change that. An Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish pastoral associate since 2008, Morison retired from the Mill Valley church last month in order to complete his doctor of ministry degree at the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo. His dissertation project, which will be completed this summer, is called “Ministering in Disaster.”

“What I would like to facilitate is a greater awareness of what is involved at any level of disaster so that our faith communities can be better prepared to help people in crisis,” Morison, 62, told Catholic San Francisco.

Morison’s doctoral project is the culmination of nearly 40 years of training and experience ministering to the needs of people directly and indirectly affected by catastrophic events. He’s been a longtime volunteer with the American Red Cross, has led disaster teams with the New Hampshire Bureau of Emergency Management and is a disaster chaplain with the Civil Air Patrol.

In 1979, as a high school religion teacher living in Chicago, he was dispatched by the Red Cross to the crash site morgue of the deadliest airline crash in U.S. history. American Airlines Flight 191 crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 277 people onboard. Morison spent three days helping identify remains and retrieving property, work he called life-altering, but “sacred.”

Morison distinguishes between pastoral crisis intervention, which is a ministry of presence and support, and pastoral care and counseling, which helps people of faith find meaning and peace in the aftermath of disaster.

Faith leaders without sufficient training in crisis response can fail to recognize pastoral opportunities that can mitigate collective or individual trauma associated with catastrophic events, regardless of whether the events directly involve the community, he said.

“I would say the majority of priests have not been oriented toward an understanding of the different types of disaster and how those types can affect their congregation,” he said.

Morison’s project outlines three distinct levels of disasters and the different and optimal types of pastoral crisis intervention.

The first level is a disaster or tragedy that does not directly involve a church or parishioners. He used the example of 9/11, which primarily happened in New York City but deeply affected people all over the country.

“Parishioners can be affected by shock,” he said, adding that the replaying of television news for hours on end can be traumatizing.

For some people in a congregation, he said, a disaster even thousands of miles away can revive trauma from a past event.

“As a pastor, I should have a sense of knowing and being comfortable with approaching my congregation in these moments so they can be recognized for their sacredness,” he said. “Even though I’m not looking for it and my people are not speaking directly to it, many of them might desperately need it.”

Level 1 disasters can also provide “teachable moments” for faith leaders, according to Morison, who took 250 middle-school students to the Museum of Science and Industry the day after the Challenger space shuttle exploded in January 1986, killing all seven crew members.

“Our message to the kids the next morning was that these were people who were doing what they felt was important, what that they felt was going to contribute to making life better and we need to celebrate their lives,” he said.

What Morison calls Level 2 disasters do directly affect some or all members of a congregation. Examples can include natural disasters like earthquakes and floods, crime or accidents that directly affect a local community. But the disaster doesn’t always have be local to have a strong impact.

As pastoral associate for his New Hampshire parish at the time of the Challenger accident, Morison was able to help parish deal with the loss of astronaut Christa McAuliffe, who had been a CCD teacher there.

“We had to know how to bring perspective to those that were directly connected with her,” he said. “And in a real way, we all were.”

Level 3 crisis intervention is ministering as a chaplain first responder to a widespread disaster or tragedy.

As far as Morison knows, the field of faith-based disaster response has not been formalized.

“There are lots of individual reflections from priests and ministers who have been caught in some sort of a disaster and share the experiences and offer theological reflections,” he said, and some good how-to materials, but pastoral crisis intervention remains a vague field.

His ultimate goal is to raise consciousness and conversation about what disaster ministry is and should be within parishes and dioceses.

“I hope to raise the consciousness of pastors, priests and seminarians about disaster and catastrophic crisis ministry and appropriate pastoral responses during the first few days and hours following a traumatic event,” he said.

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