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Proselytizing Evangelicals Back at It in Flood-Damaged Towns


In June, we brought you the story of Roz Payne, who sought assistance from 2-1-1 for her flooded North Hero camp and instead was met with a Southern Baptist prayer circle. The "help" came in the form of a minister and his wife, members of the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief of New England, who, rather than helping salvage Payne's belongings that were worth saving, suggested they pray.

As Payne told reporter Andy Bromage, “I do not think holding hands in a circle in the name of Jesus helped to save the contents of my house.”

Payne complained to everyone from Sen. Bernie Sanders to the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, an umbrella group for organizations that assist in crises. VOAD contacted the Southern Baptists and asked them to tone down the "spiritual triage," as church members called their actions. 

Now, in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, there are reports of similar spiritual meddling. Rev. Emily C. Heath, pastor of Wilmington and West Dover Congregational churches, says she has witnessed untrained chaplains masquerading as Red Cross volunteers in her community. 

Last week, as Heath helped organize relief efforts in Wilmington, one of the towns hardest hit by flooding, she noticed people wandering around town wearing T-shirts that said "Chaplain." Some of them were wearing badges from the International Fellowship of Chaplains, which has ties to the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination, and has been accused of fundamentalist extremism and anti-gay rhetoric.  

Heath, who describes herself as a "big butch lesbian," approached the so-called chaplains to introduce herself as the pastor of the local congregational church. They told her they were there to "counsel people," but something seemed off, Heath says. Some of them said they were chaplains affiliated with the Red Cross, a claim that Red Cross officials deny. 

Heath, who has a master's degree in divinity and is working on her doctoral degree in ministry, was skeptical of their claims primarily because she has done extensive training as a trauma chaplain. Before pastoring, she worked as a chaplain at a Level I trauma center. Trauma chaplaincy isn't about spreading faith; it's about providing comfort and getting people the help they need, Heath says. Instead, "these people use disasters to expand their mission."

While she didn't see any overt proselytizing, she didn't see much in the way of actual assistance being provided. The so-called chaplains gave out some water and that was about it. But Heath says that pushing their brand of faith was their ultimate mission.

"I think it's unethical," she says. "It's one thing to provide people with hope and carry out the Gospel to help them. It's another thing to use a disaster area to prey on people at their most vulnerable."

That members of the IFC came to Vermont wasn't surprising to Heath. Having seen the same thing happen after Hurricane Katrina, she anticipated their arrival, and felt it was her job get the word out about their ulterior motives. "Responsible clergy have to be the gatekeepers for their community."

Recently, an article in the online newspaper Christian Post trumpeted the actions of evangelical volunteers in Vermont, writing "the work Christians are doing in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene has proved to be a stepping-stone for creating a larger community of believers in the region." Heath says there's an easy way to avoid falling prey to people looking to convert folks in disaster areas: "Trust organizations that already have ties to your community," she advises.