Trust, Resilience and the Healthy Society
July 25, 2018
The 2018 Triennial meeting of Micah Global will occur in Manila this September. Many things make this meeting a special event. One in particular is that it is the five-year anniversary of a disaster conference that was two months before Typhoon Haiyan. That conference was a WEA/PCEC/Micah meeting in Manila to discuss and advance the role of local churches in making communities more resilient in response to disasters.
In the 2013 conference I presented a paper on the relationship between vulnerable populations, communities and disaster damage. It is interesting to reflect on that presentation as the triennial comes closer. I presented several examples of how vulnerable people are disproportionately harmed, suffer longer, and are increasingly placed at risk even while other communities reduce their risk. Looking back, I find that there is an underlying theme to those examples issue that is important to discuss if we are to more fully understand resilience. That is the issue of trust.
Among the examples presented in the past, I described an ice storm in 1994 in the Mid-Atlantic region of the US. It was one of the worst ice storms in US history (I lived there at that time). In my review I focused on North Carolina where 38 people died in the storm, all from carbon monoxide poisoning. While the health departments in North Carolina made a great effort to educate and alert people to the risk of CO poisoning, migrant workers did not receive this information, and largely stayed away from health centers and government buildings where they might have seen the alerts. All the 38 who died were migrant farm workers. At the most basic level, the cause of their deaths was fear and a lack of trust. They did not believe that government agencies and workers would attend to their needs and not focus on their immigration status. They did not have any trusted connections to the larger community that might have enabled them to be made aware of the risks to their lives.
Another example I used then was the 1995 Chicago heat wave that led to 739 deaths. Most of those who died were elderly living in low income housing in poor and high crime areas of the city. These were people who lived in fear of the crime around them. When, during the heat wave, someone came to their door to check on their status, the elderly often would not respond out of fear that it was someone trying to get access to their apartment for criminal purposes. These were often isolated people who lived in a setting where they felt they could not trust anyone. The City of Chicago Health Department learned from this experience and developed neighborhood volunteers who made themselves known to the vulnerable people around them. They built trusted relationships so that when the next heat wave occurred these neighborhood volunteers were known, trusted, and able to help. The death rate from heat dropped significantly since then.
There is a current example, not related to weather, that is also instructive. In their new book , authors Baumgartner, Epp and Shoub use traffic stop data from the State of North Carolina to examine whether race is a factor in traffic stops. Their key finding is that African Americans are stopped twice as often than whites or Latinos. This difference in stopping African Americans has been justified as a useful crime prevention method because, it is assumed, Blacks commit crime at a higher rate. In fact, the data showed that whites who are stopped are more likely to have been involved in a crime or possess contraband, thus debunking the myth that blacks are stopped more because they are more likely to have committed a crime. The practice is not only unjustified, it also has consequences for the community. The authors argue that stereotyping leads to distrust of the police along with anger over injustice. When traffic stops are not used to find perpetrators and instead are only used to improve safety, and when searches are only performed when there is probable cause, then the community is less likely to see police as agents of injustice. The authors recommendations were implemented in Fayetteville, NC, resulting in an increase in trust in the police and a corresponding decrease in crime. The reduction in crime was attributed to increased trust in the police, which in turn led to greater cooperation with the police. In an important caution, the authors also note that when they first presented their findings the official response was to reject their analysis and to stop all future data collection. This has begun to change, but it should remind us that change, even with evidence of it being a win for all, is never easy.
So, what we see are several examples where trust is at the heart of community cooperation, communication, and collaboration. All of which leads to the question that is at the heart of the upcoming triennial: how are trust and resilience built, and does the church have a role.
There are a great many examples of churches and other faith-based groups confronting injustice. The connection to resilience is not as clear but can be seen in many examples of action against injustice. In our just published analysis of a church network in a refugee camp, we showed how church action on injustice (in this case unjust distribution of resources) is linked to reducing violence and increasing cooperation and peaceful settlement of differences . Clearly, reducing violence reduces man-made disasters (such as war, crime and terrorism) and improves response to natural disasters. Conversely, when community or national leaders equivocate on injustice or appear to condone injustice, community health and resilience suffer.
More specifically, what can churches do? Some see the role of the church in calling out injustice as an expression of the historic role of the church as the prophetic voice of society. Historically there were three aspects to leading a nation: Kings, who functioned as administrators, priests, who were the link to God and His guidance, and prophets, who spoke out whenever the other two went astray or society was deviating from God’s vision. Offutt and colleagues (2016), writing on an evangelical vision for creating justice, note that the current practice is (in my words) out of balance. They write …
“As Evangelicals we possess robust theologies for dealing with personal sin, but limited resources for dealing with structural or institutional sin” (p.79). Yet, it is the role of the church to “speak with and on behalf of the poor, oppressed, and hungry people before those in power to name the injustices that keep people marginalized and oppressed. “ (p.101).
From this view, the church has an essential role to recognize injustice, speak out against it, and advocate for a just solution.
Another role for a church is to build bridges across community groups. The church does this when it serves as a trusted broker to bring different groups together. Collaboration and cooperation across community barriers is an established element of resilience, and the church can be in a role to bring down these barriers. Unfortunately, it can also raise barriers when the church teaches distrust and separation.
Therein is the role for groups like Micah: educating church leaders, teaching the theological foundation for justice, bringing groups together and supporting those who play a prophetic role. If you wish to learn more about Micah and support its work, including the upcoming triennial, you can visit the Micah website at https://www.micahnetwork.org/.