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Chicago Church Preaches Preparedness

March 2017

By Jamie Aten and Laura Leonard

Members of the Oakdale Community Development Corporation (OCDC) in Chicago, IL are more prepared today than they were two years ago thanks to the work of a new disaster preparedness committee within their ministry. 

OCDC is a ministry of Oakdale Covenant Church, the largest African-American congregation in the Evangelical Covenant Churches of America, located on the south side of Chicago. In September 2016, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) awarded OCDC an Honorable Mention in the category of Preparing the Whole Community as part of the Individual and Community Preparedness (ICP) Awards. FEMA’s ICP Awards recognize innovation in emergency preparedness. 

In 2015, Executive Director Sharon Davis attended the Humanitarian Disaster Institute’s (HDI) Disaster Ministry Conference. She connected with faith leaders from around the country as well subject matter experts at the U.S. Department of Justice and the Illinois Department of Public Health. She came away inspired to start a disaster preparedness committee at her church. With a copy of HDI’s Disaster Ministry Handbook in hand, she immediately brought the idea to the pastor of the church. The pastor supported the idea, and gave her the go-ahead. 

“Most people think we’re not at risk for emergencies, meaning something big,” said Davis. “An emergency is anything that puts your church out of the business of being a church and keeps you from having worship. Everybody’s emergency is different, and that’s why you have to do the assessment.”

The first thing she did was assemble a core group that meets weekly in order to assess the particular risks the church faces. Davis and her committee discovered that the church, which is located on a busy corner in Chicago, had some very unique risks specific to their community and programs. Each Sunday, elderly dementia patients from nearby retirement communities are brought to the church for services. The preparedness committee created a process to coordinate with the patients’ caregivers including establishing an emergency point of contact, and creating a plan if the caregiver is late in picking up the patient. The committee also uses similar tools when planning offsite trips with senior citizens.

The Committee was also concerned about the risk of an active shooter incident based on the church’s inner-city location and identity as a large African-American church in Chicago. One week before the shooting at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) in Charleston, SC, Davis invited representatives from the Justice Department to walk them through an active shooter drill. 

Oakdale Covenant Church is also connected to a school, which prompted trainings for relevant issues at each age level, such as: “How to avoid a flu epidemic by washing your hands regularly,” “How to create an escape plan in case of a fire,” and basic first-aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). 

“When we learn something, we try to train people right away,” said Davis. “We’re doing how-to’s while still writing the plan.” 

Davis is inspiring others to start their own disaster ministries. In the past year, she hosted a workshop entitled Disaster Preparedness for Faith Communities at the National Christian Community Development Association Conference and presented on disaster preparedness for Covenant denomination leaders. 

Learn more about HDI’s annual Disaster Ministry Conference at

About the authors: 
Dr. Jamie D. Aten is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Rech Endowed Chair of Psychology at Wheaton College in Illinois. In 2016, FEMA awarded Dr. Aten the Community Preparedness Champions Award as part of the ICP Awards. 
Laura Leonard is communications specialist for the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois.