Most Catholics are familiar with the seven corporal acts of mercy:
Feed the hungry.
Give water to the thirsty.
Clothe the naked.
Shelter the homeless.
Visit the sick.
Visit the imprisoned, or ransom the captive.
Bury the dead.
A relatively new parishioner at St. John Neumann performs these and other acts of charity on a regular basis as a volunteer for the American Red Cross, specializing in a field few people are familiar with: Disaster Spiritual Care.
Although for years the Red Cross has dispatched volunteer nurses and mental health professionals to scenes of disaster, such as plane crashes and fires, in November 2015 the organization added Disaster Spiritual Care” to its array of services.
“We had ‘body’ with our nurses, ‘mind’ with our mental health counselors, and now we have ‘soul’ with disaster spiritual care,” says Connie Sue Regener, a former hospice chaplain who became a Catholic in May 2017. “They say it’s the converts that take the lead in evangelization because they are so enthusiastic about their new faith.”
A former Protestant pastor who sings in the choir at St. John Neumann, Regener’s official volunteer title is Disaster Spiritual Care Responder (DSR) for the American Red Cross.
The relatively new service provides respectful and appropriate spiritual care support to clients, survivors and staff, says Tim Serban, Disaster Spiritual Care National Lead for the American Red Cross at its national headquarters in Washington, D.C., and Pacific Division Advisor.
“The Red Cross supports the physical, emotional and now spiritual needs of those impacted by disasters in the United States, in addition to our traditional goal of supporting sheltering and feeding needs immediately following a disaster,” Serban says.
Disaster Spiritual Care Responders work in close collaboration with Red Cross Disaster Health and Disaster Mental Health volunteers.
“Our disaster Spiritual Care volunteers support the spiritual needs that arise such as grief and loss, (and collaborates) with all faith communities to ensure each person is served in a way that honors their tradition or faith community,” Serban says.
Often following a disaster or mass-casualty event, questions of meaning and feelings of helplessness emerge, Serban says.
“It’s essential to ensure one has a safe place to grieve and find meaning on (his or her) own terms,” he says.
As regional advisor in Disaster Spiritual Care for the American Red Cross, Regener’s territory includes Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. She is trying to build up a local team of volunteers to work with her. So far, she’s recruited 10.
Although the American Red Cross used to require all DSRs to be certified as chaplains, volunteers now can serve as DSRs after meeting certain eligibility requirements and being trained in certain skill sets.
“Everybody deserves compassion, dignity and respect,” says Regener, who outside of her Red Cross role also is a board-certified chaplain. “When you’re down and out, a lot of your dignity is taken away. You become totally dependent on others. DSRs are like force multipliers. We make everyone else more effective. We’re there to make things run better.”
In the past two years, Regener’s work as a DSR has taken her to floods in South Carolina, the mass shooting in San Bernardino, the Blue Cut Fire near Victorville and three shelters following Hurricane Harvey in Texas.
She also worked in two shelters for evacuees following the destructive Canyon 2 fire in Anaheim.
She recalls a woman who had just moved to Orange County from out of state who was evacuated in that blaze.
“She had no local support system and was in the process of looking for a job,” Regener says. “She was frantic on her phone trying to reschedule a job interview she missed. When I work the shelters, I look for people who are having the hardest times.”
Deacon John Erdag at St. John Neumann has been supportive of Regener’s efforts.
In a message to parishioners, Erdag, director of Parish Life, recalled Regener returning from the Blue Cut Fire when she was an RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) pre-Catechumen.
“One lady in particular was very despondent over the loss of her garage,” Erdag wrote. “It happened to be the structure where her child had taken his life, and now she didn’t have that place anymore.
“Connie was there to pray with her and give her comfort. When Connie returned to Irvine, she came straight to St. John Neumann, even before going home. Dirty and sooty, she laid her Red Cross badge at the foot of the altar and gave up her experiences to the Lord. What a remarkable act of discipleship.”
Regener, who earned a master of divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, volunteers more than 1,000 hours a year for the American Red Cross.
“We feel everybody deserves spiritual care — that is, what’s important to you, your values, your world view,” she says. “It’s the universal need everyone has for love, dignity and respect.”
If you’re interested in becoming a DSR for the American Red Cross, contact Regener at Connie.Regener@RedCross.org