When natural disasters hit, the local church protects vulnerable children by helping to build resilience among poor communities

A family living in their kitchen just after the 2018 earthquake in Haiti destroyed the rest of their home(Photo: Compassion International)

When the strong winds of Tropical storm Laura ripped through Haiti on 22 August, bringing heavy rains and severe flooding in its wake, it destroyed homes, plantations and took the lives of at least 21 people. More than a million souls were left without electricity, making communication with the most affected areas even more difficult. Covid-19 is another major obstacle to many communities already having to battle poverty alongside natural disasters. The continued resiliency of these communities is crucial, otherwise those most vulnerable to the effects of these challenges – the children – will suffer on every imaginable level.

A recent report by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) reveals the frequency of natural disasters around the world increased ten-fold since 1960, topping 396 incidents and displacing 25 million people in 2019 alone. For many people living in countries such as Haiti where Compassion UK works, poverty exacerbates their difficulties and often impacts vulnerable children the most. It reduces their ability to prepare for natural disasters - never mind a pandemic like Covid-19 - and robs them of much-needed opportunities so they can bounce back.

According to the IEP's Ecological Threat Register (ETR) report, the lack of resilience in many countries will lead to worsening food insecurity and competition over resources like water, increasing civil unrest and mass displacement. When you consider these threats in the context of COVID-19, with research revealing that the number of children living in poverty around the world has increased by 15% to 1.2 billion because of the pandemic, it is sobering. There has never been a more pressing time for Christ followers to recognise that our neighbours are in these disaster-prone and poverty-struck regions of the world and need our love in action more than ever.

I've seen first-hand the vital role the local church plays on the frontline to bring hope and help build resilience among their communities, so that they can continue to protect and nurture more children. A few days after the devastation of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, I recall walking through the community of Leogane which was close to the epicentre. On a street corner I came across the ruins of where the church building and Compassion project had once stood.

A former Compassion sponsored child - now the Pastor of the destroyed church - Pastor Menard was sweeping the rubble from the street wearing a red cap that stated, "Jesus is my boss". His first words were, "We have to rebuild and we have to begin somewhere." Over the next few years Pastor Menard led his people and together, in partnership with Compassion, they rebuilt the church, the school and the Compassion project, giving many children in that community an opportunity to rise above poverty.

In the aftermath of Tropical storm Laura, thanks to local churches, that rebuilding process is happening once again. Less than 24 hours after the storm had passed, Compassion's national office was coordinating the effort with our church partners to identify the victims and provide them with rapid support. Praise God that no sponsored children lost their lives, but more than 2,700 were impacted. Many families lost their livelihoods, particularly those who rely on herding and farming for survival, which is often the only means for families to pay school fees. Our local church partners were there to provide families with food, and hygiene kits, as well as psychological support.

In Baguette in Jean Rabel, northwest Haiti, where the storm hit hard, several families lost their plantations, making them even more vulnerable to hunger and poverty. "It's in times of great difficulty that you really realise who you can count on. The Compassion family has been there for us. I [thank] the Lord for that," said sponsored teenager Junel, 19.

Local churches like Junel's shine God's light in some of the darkest situations. They are best placed to offer lasting hope and practical support to communities in great need. That's why Compassion works exclusively in partnership with the Church. We're privileged to come alongside our local church partners around the world and equip them with the resources they need to support children living in extreme poverty.

Hearing news of a natural disaster on the other side of the world can be distressing but often distant compared to the challenges and preoccupations we face in our own lives, especially when a pandemic continues to disrupt our 'normal' way of life and worship. And yet if we truly understand we are the body of Christ, and each a part of it, we know that when one part suffers, every part suffers with it.

In response I believe we can pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ, who are working to care for those communities and vulnerable children living in extreme poverty in disaster-prone countries, continually holding out the love of Jesus Christ in word and deed.

Justin Dowds is the CEO of Compassion UK, an international Christian child development charity with more than 68 years' experience working with some of the world's poorest children.Prior to working at Compassion UK, Justin successfully established and managed his own business and worked as a community pharmacist across Scotland, whilst also running the Scottish-based Christian music festival Frenzy. He also directed an international team who fundraised, designed and constructed a solar-powered hospital on La Gonave Island in Haiti, following the earthquake there in 2010.