UPDATE: Download a piece that Jon wrote for us on the occasion of Hurricane Harvey: In Light of Catastrophe: A Few Thoughts for Pastoral Servants.
Jon Wallace is shown in the photo above standing with Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin during an Oklahoma City bombing commemoration because he is all too familiar with its devastating aftermath. Prior to attending the Iliff School of Theology, Wallace worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In addition to the Oklahoma City bombing, he has responded to more than 40 presidentially declared disasters and dozens of smaller disasters around the country.
I left federal employment and the stresses that it holds, including an expectation of my federal oath which stipulates how I am to be in life while I’m a federal employee which can be somewhat constrictive. You know, I couldn’t speak out and protest about things that involve the Second Amendment.
In 2010, while a student at Iliff, Wallace developed and field-tested a peer support pilot project designed to facilitate workplace resilience for employees of FEMA in Denver, Colorado. Wallace recognized that in order for the Department of Homeland Security to fulfill its mission of ensuring “a homeland that is safe, secure, and resilient against terrorism and other hazards,” the needs of its workforce also needed to be met.
For a long time, I was concerned about the stress, death and destruction exposure of federal workers on disaster deployments. Many of them had multiple experiences of such exposure. I was disappointed when I became aware of the scarcity of work-life programs to assist them in dealing with these stresses.
Wallace found that disaster response workers were also reluctant to utilize the few existing programs because they were in fear of it affecting their positions. In response, Wallace designed the first program as chaplaincy where disaster relief responders would be able to seek and access needed support from qualified Peer Specialists. (Wallace’s pilot program is published as “Field Test of a Peer Support Pilot Project Serving Federal Employees Deployed to a Major Disaster,” Social Work & Christianity: Journal of the North American Association of Christians in Social Work, Vol. 43, No. 1 (2016), 127-141.)
When Wallace graduated from Iliff, he took a break.
I worked on my ordination paper which is finally finished. I looked for something completely different to get disaster recovery out of my brain and body.
Even though Wallace looked for a different vocation, he was called back into disaster ministry in October of 2016 when Hurricane Matthew hit the Carolinas and impacted portions of Virginia as well.
Hurricane Matthew is the largest disaster in North Carolina history. They were shy of 94,000 applications for federal assistance. I traveled through 16 communities and out in the areas surrounding them.
Wallace’s experience and skills were put to needed use. As a result, he is now serving in his new role as Conference Disaster Ministries Coordinator for the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ.
This role has expanded to include meeting needs that remain long after the hurricane has gone.
The other part of what I’ve been doing is that we’re going to have people coming from all over the country to rebuild and repair homes. Again, the Holy Spirit nudges. This moved me to think that we should go the extra mile and orient our volunteers to the history of North Carolina that includes poverty and racism.
We want to teach people about White privilege. We want to give them a sense of urgency for justice. We have them for such a limited time. I think we want to integrate some of the White privilege material from the UCC website but I also think we want to rely on the African American storytellers here to tell the story. Not too far from here there is a slave boat port. There’s also the Franklinton Center [a former plantation] which was a whipping post. Slaves were brought to the tree and broken.
And I have been thinking it through. Powerfully, we can orient our volunteers to the reality of racism and privilege through the lens of someone who has experienced it. Then, when people are working on houses and rebuilding, they will have the story in their hearts. It will significantly add to their ministries and relationships that they build when they are here. When they go home, they will be significantly different.