From Charity to Caritas: Re-thinking Disaster Relief

This Encounter re-imagines the concept of charity in response to disasters around the globe.

Contributed by: Francesco Paganini

When it comes to the concept of humanitarian aid as a fundamental right, we Christians have allowed ourselves to fall behind the secular community. Nowhere is that manifested more dramatically than in the notion of “charity” that is still pervasive among many Christian donors and those who implement humanitarian aid.

A look at how humanitarian aid is approached by the faith agents who provide it would enable us to judge whether or not our conception of charity is consistent with the Christian mandate. Since the discussion here is about language, we need to make a small but profound distinction between two basic concepts of charity. The first follows the traditional definition of charity as “the voluntary giving of help, typically money, to those in need.” This is often the mindset with which many approach humanitarian aid. Under this definition, aid is provided voluntarily (that is, optionally) and is motivated by an emotional response. The other form of charity, distinguished by use of the Latin term caritas, is viewed not as a voluntary action but as an obligation brought on by the love of God and by Christ’s call for his disciples to love one another. (John 15:12)

While there is no doubt that faith-based donors and aid providers are having a profound and meaningful impact on humanitarian response, there is still significant room for improvement. Making a distinction between the two ideas of charity may seem minor, but a true shift to the caritas approach would have a profound impact on the way faith agents see humanitarian aid. The implications are too numerous to be exhaustively examined here, but a look at the faith community’s response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti will illustrate how far we still have to go to fully embrace the Christian paradigm of aid.

Disaster Risk Reduction

The faith-based community’s response to the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti was a manifestation of profound solidarity. The Haiti earthquake also showcased the capability of modern technology to deliver an ongoing disaster right into our homes. As a result, there was a massive, almost instantaneous outpouring of support by Christians for those impacted by the earthquake.

Now consider the response to a catastrophe if, all along, such aid was embraced by Christians as a mandate rather than a charitable choice. We might well place greater emphasis on foresight and preparation by building up the resilience of vulnerable communities before a disaster strikes. A continuing mandate would enable Christian responders to invest more efficiently in disaster preparedness, thus mitigating the damage done when an actual disaster occurs.

This is not a revolutionary concept but an approach that many government donors have already embraced. USAID’s Office of Disaster Assistance is increasingly focusing on disaster risk reduction (DRR). This agency is fully aware that public pressure to respond to an increasing number of disasters around the globe will strain its financial resources and reduce its capability for response. Similarly, Christian donors and institutions should be clamoring for disaster responders to identify high-risk areas so that they can invest their support in reducing the impact of potential disasters in these highly vulnerable spots.

This logical solicitation and use of funds allows UMCOR to continue performing the duties with which the Methodist community has entrusted us. Still, it has been challenging to communicate our continuing need for risk-reduction funding and activities because such work does not elicit the kind of strong emotional reaction as does a response to an immediate desperate need. This challenge can best be met through a reinterpretation of aid as an ongoing obligation. Once humanitarian aid is regarded as an entitlement, it makes sense to invest in disaster risk reduction as a way to minimize our liabilities for future major events.

Francesco Paganini is the manager for International Disaster Response, United Methodist Committee on Relief. This article is an adaptation from one that originally appeared in the September-October 2013 edition of New World Outlook magazine.

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Breath Prayer for Disaster Response

A breathing prayer that guides justice action for disaster response.

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Breath prayer is an ancient Christian practice that combines short phrases with the rhythm of your breathing. When you pick a phrase, you speak or recite half of it when you breathe in and the other half when you breathe out.

The traditional Christian breath prayer is The Jesus Prayer:

(Breathe In) Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God (Breathe Out) have mercy on me a sinner.

Others include:

(Breathe In) Be still and know (Breathe Out) that I am God.

(Breathe In) I no longer live (Breathe Out) but Christ lives in me.

Breath prayer is a way that Christians throughout time have attempted to “pray without ceasing.” In it, prayer becomes as natural as breathing.

In Buddhist tradition, meditation takes a similar form as breath prayer. But instead of just an individual activity, Buddhists seek social justice with their breath prayers. They breathe in the sins of the world and breathe out corrections. Their prayers become vehicles for transformation as they keep a person centered on the path of correct actions, thoughts, and intentions. This centered-ness allows someone to live for transformation in the world.

In this way, the breath prayer can be a tool for just living and action in the world.

As you encountered the difficulties and sadness surrounding disasters and disaster response, try reciting or creating a breath prayer that will keep you centered on the path to justice. For example:

(Breathe In) For those who've lost everything, (Breathe Out) let them be comforted.

(Breathe In) For any without dignity, (Breathe Out) help me to show it to all. 

Try living with this breath prayer for awhile or create your own. Allow it to guide you as you determine how you want to act on the issue of disaster relief and response.

Adapted from and informed by Rev. Jeremy Smith on

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Take Action

Giving: UMCOR

Learn more about how to give to UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief), an organization responding to disasters in communities all over the world.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is a religious organization that assists the most vulnerable persons affected by crisis or chronic need without regard to their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. They believe all people have God-given worth and dignity. Not only do they respond to disasters, but they work with vulnerable communities to be prepared when disaster strikes.

Visit this site to learn more about this organization and how you can support their efforts. 

UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief)

Learn more about how to donate to various projects from this organization

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