Meeting Emotional and Spiritual Needs

“Most disaster victims need more than just a meal and a safe
place to sleep,” says Portland, Oregon-based Red Cross service area leader Tim
Serban. “They also need emotional and spiritual support to help them get
through an ordeal that threatens to tear their lives apart. They already know
what happened. Now they want to know why it happened and why such a terrible
thing happened to them.”
Serban, a lay Catholic
chaplain, served in Texas by bringing comfort to victims of Hurricane Harvey, as
he has done at disaster scenes going back to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in
2001.  And he was just one of 60 chaplains deployed to Texas – plus 20
more deployed to Hurricane Irma in Florida
 – as part of a brand new activity of
the American Red Cross.
Since 2015, an
official Red Cross function has been serving the spiritual and emotional needs
of disaster victims, as well as their physical need for food and shelter.
Serban’s formal Red
Cross title is Disaster Spiritual Care National Lead. He is also spiritual care
adviser to the Pacific Division of the Red Cross, which includes the Pacific
Coast from California to Alaska and the Pacific Ocean islands.
Serban lives in
Portland, having moved here from Everett, Washington, in 2013. For many years he served
as a board member of the Red Cross Chapter serving Snohomish County.
Most Red Cross
chapters provide some spiritual care to disaster victims through ties to local
religious leaders. But now providing that care is an official Red Cross
function – put to the test as never before by the back-to-back hurricanes,
Harvey and Irma. The seeds of this new initiative were planted by a headline
disaster: the crash of TWA flight 800 offshore from New York City in 1996.
The families of
victims of that crash prevailed on Congress to pass the Aviation Disaster
Family Assistance Act of 1996. It mandated such things as a memorial service
for victims and support services for family members of victims. Serban explained
that the Red Cross was brought into the picture as the government worked out
ways of complying with that mandate.
The first Red Cross
spiritual care response was to 9/11. Serban met with the families of victims
and accompanied them when they visited lower Manhattan where the towers had
stood. He also provided counseling to the firefighters and construction workers
searching for victims in the debris.
Serban reached Texas
only three days after Hurricane Harvey came to shore. He concentrated on
Houston, where flooding sent tens of thousands of people into shelters. Other
Red Cross spiritual care teams were spread across the state.
“Our first job is to
provide victims a safe quiet spot,” says Serban. “My first question is,’where
do you go to get grounded?’ They will tell me it is their home or their family
or their pets. Then we talk about how they can ground themselves when so much
they relied on is gone.”
Serban witnessed
80,000 people permanently displaced by Harvey. “Many of them lost everything
and needed all the support we could provide,” he says. “But we did not ignore
the needs of the volunteers who were overwhelmed by the scope of the disaster.”
Red Cross spiritual
care is nondenominational – in keeping with the basic Red Cross principles of
impartiality and neutrality. So, spiritual care teams include members of all
faiths. “A chaplain in a shelter is a chaplain to everyone in that shelter,”
Serban says.
Serban trained for his role by studying theology, psychology and
counseling at 
Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. His working title is Professional Health Care
Chaplain, and most of his career has been spent working in hospitals. Serban
was head of Mission Integration and Spiritual Care at a Providence Regional
Medical Center in Everett, Washington, for many years – the years in which he was
affiliated with the Red Cross Northwest Region. 
Since 2013 Serban has been in charge of spiritual care for the
eight Providence Health hospitals in Oregon. 
Serban finds his experience in hospitals excellent training for the
challenges he has faced working in disaster areas. “In both hospitals and
shelters,” he says, “people are vulnerable when they come in. Our job as
chaplains is to supply the spiritual care that will support them in their
vulnerability. That support may come
from a minister or a rabbi or an imam, but
our job is to make sure they get all the spiritual support they need.”