Episcopal Relief & Development Partner Facilitates Ecumenical Response to Disaster in Central Washington

April 19, 2011

On February 12, a catastrophic fire destroyed 20 homes and damaged 100 more in the small rural town of White Swan, located on the Yakama Indian Reservation in central Washington State. Eighty-mile-per-hour winds that day caused a chimney fire in one home to spread through the scrub and dry brush that makes up the local landscape, reaching the town’s lumber mill and endangering hundreds of people. 

Episcopal Relief & Development is supporting Christ Church in the initial phase of their response to this disaster. Christ Church, a parish of 15 in the neighboring town of Zillah, WA, has banded together with local ecumenical partners to provide temporary shelter, groceries and other basic needs for impacted residents of White Swan.

Christ Church is a very small congregation, but the parish donates over 10% of its income each year to local and global mission work, and members volunteer in a variety of ways throughout the surrounding area. Recently, a leadership team received training from the diocesan Organizing for Mission project, in partnership with Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation and the Episcopal Church Foundation. The goal of the campaign is to raise funds for local and global hunger ministries, and, with additional support from Toppenish United Methodist Church, the White Swan fire has become a focus of this additional outreach effort.

Katie Mears, Program Manager for Episcopal Relief & Development’s US Disaster Program, spoke positively about Christ Church’s mission focus and ecumenism, and noted them as factors in the decision to send support. “We look for congregations in impacted communities with the desire to serve. When they’ve already built relationships with other faith communities and are active in outreach, that makes their ability to respond post-disaster much stronger,” she said. “Lots of churches know how to do community ministry, so the structures are already in place. We can help them use their existing systems and assets in new ways, to respond to community needs after a crisis.”

One of the goals of the US Disaster Program is to connect disaster response leaders in the Episcopal Church with newly impacted communities. One of the leaders in faith-based disaster response in the Northwest is Dave Baylor, the diocesan disaster coordinator for the Diocese of Olympia and a parishioner at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle. “After I connected with leaders in the diocese of Spokane,” said Mears, “I realized that Dave’s experience and connections would be invaluable to Christ Church’s response efforts in White Swan, so I put them in contact with each other.”

Baylor has been involved in disaster work in western Washington State, and is active in WIDRO (Washington Interfaith Disaster Recovery Organization) and WAVOAD (Washington Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster), both statewide organizations with connections to state and federal disaster response agencies. He was able to talk to Bishop James E. Waggoner of the Diocese of Spokane, where White Swan and Zillah are located, and David Hacker, a parishioner at Christ Church who is involved in the ecumenical response, to help them look at their efforts from a big-picture standpoint and see where connections could be made to larger agencies.

“This is not something that’s going to be fixed overnight,” said Mears, “but the people at Christ Church know this, and are committed to helping long-term. They’re a small parish, but they really know what they’re about – working in collaboration with their ecumenical partners to follow God’s call.”

Episcopal Relief & Development is the international relief and development agency of the Episcopal Church and an independent 501(c)(3) organization. The agency takes its mandate from Jesus’ words found in Matthew 25. Its programs work towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Together with the worldwide Church and ecumenical partners, Episcopal Relief & Development rebuilds after disasters and empowers people by offering lasting solutions that fight poverty, hunger and disease, including HIV/AIDS and malaria.