From NOLA to the World

The growth of EFCA Crisis Response

As the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina exponentially unfolded in August 2005, most of the world watched in disbelief. One couple, however, began packing their bags.

“Starting a crisis-response ministry for the Evangelical Free Church of America was in our minds even before Katrina,” admits Mark Lewis, director of the worldwide ministry that grew out of Katrina relief efforts.

As early as 1993, Mark and his wife, Denise, had watched news footage of flooding in the Mississippi River Valley and the subsequent disaster-relief work. Mark remembers asking, “What would keep us from doing that?” Then, in 1999, Denise wrote a research thesis on church-response to natural disaster.

So when Katrina hit six years later, they were immediately on the phone and soon after on a plane, leaving behind a six-figure income and their church home at West Shore EFC in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Before long, they’d created a real-life crisis-response plan: From their base in New Orleans, they envisioned engaging in such response regionally and then around the world.

Some families lost everything when Hurricane Sandy struck the eastern U.S. coast in October 2012. Courtesy Jackie Passer (Top image: Typhoon Retsina, Philippines, September 2009. Photo: Mark Lewis)

At the time, there were only two EFCA congregations in the greater New Orleans, Louisiana, area (known as NOLA): While downtown Castle Rock Community Church struggled through its own evacuation and restoration, Trinity Church—some 40 miles north of the immediate damage—immediately opened its doors to help.

The nascent Crisis Response ministry issued a plea for EFCA congregations to send volunteers, and church after church responded, sending teams to spend their days down in the city and their nights on the floor of Trinity Church. The real-life plan was underway. (Read “Redemption From Pain” about the beginnings of Crisis Response in New Orleans. Then explore the interactive timeline about the unfolding response efforts in New Orleans.)

Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) devastated the Philippines in November 2013. Crisis Response worked alongside local church partners in immediate relief but also to start livelihood development projects that doubled as discipleship groups. Photo: Nelson Fuentes

When tornadoes hit Florida 18 months after Katrina, it was not a stretch for Mark to send a team to help the local Evangelical Free Churches recover. And when the magnitude-7.9 earthquake struck Chincha, Peru, in August 2007, the international response began, and hasn’t stopped.

To date, EFCA Crisis Response has had feet on the ground in more than 20 places—multiple locations in the United States as well as Haiti, Japan, Myanmar, China, the Middle East, Indonesia, Brazil, Peru, the Philippines, Chile and, most recently, Nepal.

For Mark Lewis, responding to crisis often starts by opening an email: “Are you watching the news?” or “Are you flying to ____tomorrow?” His team then initiates contact with a local church, missionary or international ministry partner, asking what response those individuals are sensing God wants from them. Sometimes Mark’s en route to one location for follow-up or training, when he’s notified that he’s needed elsewhere. Other times, the team has already been tracking hurricanes and typhoons and arranging to be in the area before landfall, to aid local believers in response efforts.

It’s no surprise, then, that Mark has more than 1.5 million frequent-flier miles racked up. And that in 2015, he’ll miss four out of five family birthdays. But talk about instilling a world vision in your children. . . .

“Sure, it’s hard,” admits Mark’s wife, Denise. “But we feel like we’re called—our kids and us. All three kids have been on trips with Mark and know people in Haiti, in Japan, in the Philippines. That helps them understand: I saw that their house was totally gone and now I can see from pictures that they have their house back and have their fishing boat. God has equipped our family to do what we’re doing.”

Millions of Syrians have fled their homes since the onset of civil war in 2011. Starting in 2014, Crisis Response offers relief goods and trains outreach workers in Bekka Valley, Lebanon, to make disciplemakers among the refugee population. Photo: Mark Lewis

And so Mark travels the world. In crisis response, speed is essential. As is presence. “We’ve found that the quicker we can be on the ground to help our response partner start thinking missionally,” Mark says, “the better in terms of ministry effectiveness.”

Missional thinking leads to disciplemaking and church planting, as in the planting of 10 churches in the Philippines in the 15 months following the Cebu typhoon.

No two crises are quite the same, Mark says. “Each has its own face. And each leaves its mark upon the faces of the people who experience it. So we look to see where God is moving, what resources He’s already provided and where there is openness, and then we look for creative ministry approaches.”

Yet there are some commonalities. “There is a mission field in the wake of every crisis,” Mark is quick to add. “I’ve seen it in every context so far. When the normalcy of life is disrupted, people ask questions like: Why? Why me? Why, God? Is there a God?”

When wildfires devastated large areas outside Valparaiso, Chile, in 2014, Crisis Response helped local church partners shape their own response to their community. Photo: Mark Lewis

The Crisis Response team has also learned that the deepest needs emerge over time, after the initial responders return home and yet nothing is “normal.” So even though millions of dollars are funneled into immediate relief, the vast majority of EFCA crisis-response funds are invested in long-term recovery and development. “This also coincides,” Mark explains, “with the most effective contexts for disciplemaking: long-term, relationally based ministry that gathers, cares for and empowers people.

“I believe this ministry of crisis response will be needed until Christ brings complete reconciliation to all of creation,” Mark adds. “Indeed, statistics certainly seem to document an increasing frequency and intensity of major crises. With the Lord’s commands to love Him, to love our neighbor and to make disciples, an intentional ministry responding to crises is an expression of obedience and worship.

After two earthquakes struck Nepal in May 2015, Crisis Response did crisis counseling in eight different villages and committed to build six community centers and build/rebuild 1,000 homes—including this one in the village of Nargokot. Photo: Katrina Welch

The pain of New Orleans, which still awaits total healing, has birthed a ministry of redemption in many other places. From fire-ravaged Colorado to rubble-strewn Kathmandu, EFCA Crisis Response tailors its efforts to best empower the Christian community to respond—to share the love of Christ with those in need and make disciples.

Use Twitter, Facebook or Instagram to share your Katrina volunteer stories and photos using #efcakatrina, or send them via email. See what others are sharing too.

Be part of EFCA Crisis Response’s next decade of powerful ministry worldwide with your financial gifts, prayers and hands-on service. Teams are still needed in New Orleans as well, to bring healing to that community. Email Crisis Response to schedule your team’s visit.

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