In the 1960s I was serving a congregation that was deeply troubled and divided, as was the nation itself, over the war in Vietnam and the fenn_civil rights movement. Baffled by the intensity of the fear and anger in my congregation and in the community, I needed not only more experience, insight, and compassion, but also a firm grasp of just what makes a church and the larger society profoundly fearful and divided. At that time Princeton Seminary was offering a master’s degree in theology on a schedule that accommodated the work of hard-pressed parish clergy. Over two critically important years I attended the Seminary on my days off, and discovered how a theological education could inform and guide ministry in the midst of crisis.
The Seminary still wants to serve the ministry in these years of continuing crisis. As our strategic plan puts it, “Mission relates to how we deal with both plenitude and with shortages. Out of our plenty (instructional and material), we have corresponding blindnesses, so how may we become less blind in the midst of plenty?” I want to know how you are coping with the crises that you face from day-to-day, and how you want the Seminary to support you in your ministry.
In one relatively affluent congregation I know, at least one member is facing foreclosure. How are you coping with foreclosures in your congregations and in your communities? In some congregations home healthcare for the elderly may soon be reduced. Members of your congregations may be losing their jobs, or dropping out of school or college to support their families, or losing their health insurance and their pensions. How are you finding ways to help them survive in the meantime and in the long run, and to sustain their hope for the future and their trust in the basic institutions of our country?
From the churches’ courageous and creative response to disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the attack on the World Trade Center, we know that churches can forge new trust, make vital connections among strangers, and build new communities in the midst of ruined cities. The churches of our nation still have an earned reputation for caring for their communities and for practicing what they preach. Some African American churches help their members pay off their mortgages and keep their houses. Many mainline churches cooperate with each other to provide food banks, and in some communities the number of people coming to these food banks is rising sharply. Many Pentecostal churches are organized to care for every last man, woman, and child among their members. Some conservative churches have developed, and are prepared to carry out, effective plans for disaster relief, should their communities be hit by a terrorist attack or by a catastrophic storm.
What major institution will the people trust if not the church, the synagogue, or the mosque? The “people of the book” are required to be as good as their word. They live by the promises of their God, and they are expected, always, to stand by their word. That is why, among all of America’s institutions, it is the communities of faith and their grassroots organizations that still receive relatively high levels of trust and respect.
I ask you to contribute your experience, your ideas and suggestions, your plans, and your needs. I ask this in the spirit of our strategic plan, which states, “Our academic curriculum and our mission must be closely interlocked. This means that awareness of the changing world and our unique ability to reach out as a place of Christian learning should galvanize our every activity and choice.”
Share your experience of the various crises that are facing this country. How have you experienced the loss of homes or of jobs in your community, and how have you been able to respond? Do the laity exercise leadership when someone is facing foreclosure or cannot afford education or healthcare, or when someone’s pension evaporates and she or he must work in old age? Do the local clergy cooperate with one another? Do you seek help from denominational resources? Do the churches in your community share their experiences and their resources, and are you discovering new forms of cooperation and mutual support among local churches and faith communities? How are you finding ways to strengthen and restore the basic trust of your congregations? How are you responding to people who have lost their future, and who already know what it means to be left behind?
I think that it is dangerous that so many are apparently losing faith in America’s institutions and in the democratic process itself. I fear that if many more lose their faith in our institutions, this country may develop the same sort of cultural despair that led Germany into fascism. It is a despair that already fuels much of the antagonism so apparent in American talk shows and town meetings. In asking you these questions, and in hoping for direct and searching replies from many of you, I trust that we will find ways to work together to tip the balance in our communities away from despair toward hope, away from mutual distrust toward new forms of community-building and trust.
Richard Fenn is the Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Christianity and Society at Princeton Theological Seminary.

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The links below provide resources for churches and institutions.

PDF of an issue of a May 2006 issue of Contemporary Sociology with essays on “Natural” Disasters by Kathlees Tierney, Eugene Rosa, Havidan Rodriguez and John Barnshaw, and Robert A. Stallings

Disaster Recovery Journal, a resource for business continuity

Pending legislation to support the human rights of disaster survivors, from Amnesty International  

Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness  

Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness Online Seminars  

Resources for the Conservation and Recovery of Cultural Materials  

University of Buffalo’s MCEER, a national database for research relating to earthquakes and extreme events