First-Ever U.S. Christian Disaster Research Center to Equip Local Churches

The nation’s first faith-based academic disaster research center located at Wheaton College in Illinois, aims to equip Christian churches and organizations to respond to natural catastrophes in the best way possible.

Wheaton College launched the Humanitarian Disaster Institute (HDI) just before the start of the fall semester. It is also one of the few disaster or humanitarian centers in the Midwest, according to school officials.

The institute is using its experience in Haiti and a planned trip to tsunami-affected areas in Japan to equip relief organizations.

“Our main mission is to equip the church in society to respond to disasters,” Psychology department professor and HDI co-director Jamie D. Aten told The Christian Post. “As part of that work, we are looking at disasters across the whole continuum, not just the event, but also what makes a community or region more vulnerable to disasters.”

The institute will also be looking at the different factors that make an area more likely to have difficulty in recovering because of issues such as poverty, health struggles, and political unrest.

“We look at what is needed to help communities become more resilient and to develop in recovery from disaster,” Aten said. “We hope to be a resource and dissemination center for local churches as well as domestic and international faith-based organizations.”

Aten, who previously lived in Mississippi during several natural and man-made disasters, is an expert on disaster-related mental health and trauma. He became interested in founding a research center related to humanitarian issues during his research related to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Gustav in 2008, and the Mississippi Delta tornadoes and the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill, both in 2010.

Co-director David Boan previously worked in public health, which led him to study the relationship between health and disasters in Chengdu, China, following the 2008 earthquake. The institute also has a staff of seven other faculty members, and numerous graduate and under-graduate students.

HDI hopes to grow as a valuable resource through applied research, training and education, and technical systems, Aten said.

“Across all the work we do, we try to always partner with other organizations. Our goal is to try to join with groups to try to accomplish something that neither could individually, but collectively might be able to make a larger impact,” Aten shared.

“We are dedicated to training the next generation of Christian humanitarian workers as well as volunteers,” he said. “We join with different emergency operation organizations as well as other research centers across the country.”

Current research projects by the institute include studying the responses of Haitian clergy to mental health and spiritual needs following last year’s earthquake. Also, the group is working on collecting data on the impact of childhood trauma on faith.

HDI is also exploring ways to reduce gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo through partnerships with churches and non-governmental organizations.

“The vision for this institute started as I saw how underserved and vulnerable populations were having difficulty accessing mental health services after Katrina,” Aten explained. “From there, I started gaining a lot of interest in the role the church plays, and particularly how churches were meeting some real needs in the greater community that weren’t being met elsewhere. Churches seemed to have unique callings, resources, and infrastructures that equipped them to work with disasters.”

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