At yet another tricky intersection of church and state — in this case church and city — Austin’s mayor in recent days asked the Austin Disaster Relief Network to make it clear that volunteers for its Hurricane Harvey relief efforts don’t have to adhere to the organization’s Christian values.
“I’m glad that ADRN has always welcomed volunteers in a disaster regardless of religious beliefs,” Mayor Steve Adler said Tuesday. “I was not personally comfortable sending folks to an organization that was not welcoming to all who want to help, and I’m glad to find out that the impression that this was not the case was the result of confusion due to website layout and not exclusionary policies.
“ADRN is doing great work,” Adler said, “and I’m glad to be able to support their efforts.”
The network’s executive director, Daniel Geraci, acknowledged his organization had not made it as clear as possible that it offers two volunteer pathways. The one that requires adherence to its religious values is for permanent volunteers. But the network now is welcoming, without requiring adherence to its religious principles, “community volunteers” for its ongoing Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.
This is good. Folks still reeling from the storm’s impact needs all the help they can get, regardless of the religious views of anybody involved.
The city, until Monday, had included the network on its Harvey relief website, noting the nonprofit “is accepting monetary and survivor item donations.” City spokesman David Green said the Austin Disaster Relief Network was removed from the website “after looking at existing need.”
“They were who we had been directing the community for handling physical donations of supplies,” Green said. “As our operations are winding down, we’re no longer encouraging the community to make physical donations locally. So we’ve taken that off.”
The Austin Disaster Relief Network says it’s shipped more than 70 truckloads of goods and assisted more than 2,200 Harvey survivors, providing housing, financial help, supplies and “emotional and spiritual care.”
That last one is where things can get tricky.
When Austinite Sharon Weintraub dropped off toiletries, cleaning supplies and socks at a network-run disaster relief location, she asked about volunteering to help sort the voluminous donations. Weintraub, in an email to Adler, said she was told to sign up through the organization’s website, which is rather dense.
She found her way to the section that required volunteers to agree to the statement of faith, which says, among other things, “that all people everywhere are lost and face the judgment of God, that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation.”
For Weintraub, a Jew, this was a nonstarter, as she said in the email that got the mayor’s attention.
Geraci says he is sorry for the confusion and that all are welcome to help, regardless of religion.
“When the Mayor’s Office called the other day, he pointed that out,” Geraci said of the possible confusion on the network’s website. “Our only mistake was we thought we were making it clear enough. … We’ve made it now straighter and cleaner and easier.”
The network, which has been involved in previous disaster relief efforts, is a member of Central Texas Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, which requires member organizations to give aid “regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the recipients, and without adverse distinction of any kind.”
Established in 2009, the network says it’s “comprised of over 175 Greater Austin churches and thousands of trained volunteers bringing hope into crisis.” The organization acknowledges its religious goals.
“ADRN’s primary goal is to serve Christ by sponsoring families affected by disaster though (its) Disaster Relief Shepherd program,” the website says.
A “spiritual readiness training” course affiliated with that program claims to “teach you how to biblically pray with disaster survivors, care for them properly and share the good news of the gospel to those in great need of His transforming power and love.”
The network’s statement of faith includes a belief that “God’s plan for human sexuality is to be expressed only within the context of marriage” and that “God instituted monogamous marriage between one genetic male and one genetic female as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society.”
Despite those beliefs, the network says it “will not withhold disaster support in the form of physical, emotional and spiritual needs, regardless of citizenship, race, religion, age, sex, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, veteran status or political affiliation” and that it “strongly opposes victimization or violence against any sector of society that disagrees with the biblical view. We honor the dignity and rights of all who differ from us on the matter of human sexuality.”
It seems the bottom line here is we should thank all who help in disaster relief. There’s nothing wrong — and probably a lot right — about organizations whose religious beliefs lead them to help in such times.
But government entities must be careful about aligning with organizations that might use disasters as an invitation for proselytizing.
And, as always, donors should be cognizant of to whom they’re donating and what their donations might support.