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Spiritual Support Groups Provide Safe Spaces After Tragedies

HOST INTRO: The bombing at the Port Authority this morning is a reminder that disaster is never far away. And when it strikes, even people who aren’t religious want some spiritual comfort. That’s why a group of pastors, monks, and rabbis spent two days learning about the life cycle of a crisis and the federal incident command system. Madeleine Thompson (MAD-uh-lyn TOMP-son) reports.

THOMPSON 1: In a small, crowded room in Midtown, 30 chaplains are learning what to do in a worst-case scenario.

(SOUND: group in training “you want to connect people, at all phases, with their support system.” fade under THOMPSON 2)

THOMPSON 2: The nondenominational group is gathered for two days of training. At the end, the chaplains will know how to stay out of the way of emergency responders, how to refer survivors to the right resources, and how to react when someone doesn’t want their help. The recent shooting at a church in Texas and the season’s major hurricanes weighed heavily on everyone’s minds.

GUDAITIS 1: When disasters are kind of epic, and national resources are spread over entire regions and the country, it’s hard to get people to come. So all communities really need to be prepared to stand on their own. (0:14)

THOMPSON 3: That’s Peter Gudaitis. He’s the president of the New York Disaster Interfaith Network, which has been organizing these workshops for the past decade. Most of the training is about helping others, but it also instructs chaplains to take care of themselves.

GUDAITIS 2: Where there is pain, and other people look away, there will only be more pain. (0:07)

THOMPSON 4: While New York City has about 300 chaplains trained, Gudaitis says it needs three times that. Many religious leaders already play crucial roles in their communities, and it’s hard for them to drop everything to help strangers. Still, Gudaitis wants to make sure a survivor’s spiritual needs aren’t ignored.

GUDAITIS 3: A holistic, wrap-around services approach has to address who you are a spiritual person as much as it does as a physical being or an intellectual or emotional being. (0:13)

THOMPSON 5: This is also important to Ravi Vaidyanaat. He’s the executive director of the Ganesh Hindu Temple in Flushing, and was in India in 2012 when a tsunami devastated the coast. He did what he could to help without any formal training, but then he thought–  

VAIDYANAAT 1: –why not be educated and acquire proper knowledge and then do it professionally. (0:06)

THOMPSON 6: Thanks to his new certification, Vaidyanaat will be ready the next time he’s needed.

VAIDYANAAT 2: We have to be there. We can’t say ‘this is not our job.’ (0:04)

(SOUND: hallelujahs, fade under THOMPSON 7)

THOMPSON 7: At 7am on Sunday, the Church of St. Borromeo in Harlem is about half full with worshippers. By 9am, it’s standing-room only. Michel Hodge is a deacon at the church and a newly certified disaster chaplain. Hodge already has some experience with tragedy. He worked for an airline on 9/11 and lost a friend on one of the hijacked flights.

HODGE 2: So I kind of understand some of the things you might want to process immediately when something like that happens. But there are also natural disasters as well. Those are also events where you might want someone to come and provide a little comfort. (0:15)

THOMPSON 9: Hodge grew up in the church, and values it as a place where people can let their guard down. Yet these spaces are also vulnerable to violence. It’s nearly impossible to prevent an attack like the one in Sutherland Springs, Texas, but now Hodge knows how to use his faith as a tool for recovery. Between hymns, he read a particularly relevant verse from the Gospel of Mark.

HODGE 1: Jesus said to his disciples, ‘be watchful, be alert, you do not know when the time will come.’ (0:11)

THOMPSON 10: Hodge and his peers are ready for that time, if it comes. Madeleine Thompson, Columbia Radio News.


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