~by Ellen Penrosa ~

Decimation as far as the eye could see. Not a single building standing, only piles of rubble beneath skeletons of steel and rebar. The only signs of life struggling forward were the canvas tents popping up in the limited open areas. A sickening stench of damp rotting flesh and moldy trash hung in the air, covering everything like a hot smelly blanket.

A search team of students from Union College’s International Rescue and Relief (IRR) program slowly made their way across the rubble toward a half-fallen apartment building. Zeus, the cadaver dog, led the way sniffing at concrete chunks and clothing scraps. He was the only member of the team whose skin did not crawl at the anticipated horror before them. Inside the semi-dark crumbling rooms they worked their way forward with one mission: to find the dead.

“Hold up, I think he’s on to something.” They paused as Zeus sniffed fervently at a pile of rubble in the back corner of a disheveled bedroom.

“Easy now, watch out for that jagged metal there in the front.”


“The floor feels weak over here. Watch your step.”

The bodies had been decomposing 10 to 15 days in Haiti’s humidity. By then they were unrecognizable; their skin was sloughing off, and the extremities bore teeth marks from rats who found an easy meal.

“It’s a chilling feeling to find a dead body,” one student reported later. “None of our training prepared us for that.”

Union College’s IRR program sent four disaster response teams to Haiti in the aftermath of the immense earthquake of January 2010. The teams worked with other relief organizations in medical clinics and debris/body removal. They did it all for God, to do His work by helping people with some of the most difficult yet necessary tasks when they needed it most.

Body recovery requires a delicate combination of speed and precision. Training and equipment is necessary because dead bodies spread diseases if not handled or disposed of properly. To ensure a population’s full recovery, the dead must be dealt with just as much as debris must be cleared and removed.

 Bear ye one another’s burdens

Disasters manifest themselves in many variations, from international disasters like the Haiti earthquake to personal disasters like abuse or addiction. They may not always make news headlines, yet disasters happen all the time, especially in personal lives, frequently going unnoticed by the population’s majority.

Emotional baggage caused by personal disasters is comparative to dead bodies from catastrophes. The baggage needs to be discovered, handled and disposed of or else it festers and damages the person carrying it. This baggage removal often requires external help from loved ones who can offer support and encouragement.

A year ago I dealt with depression caused by emotional baggage. I abandoned everything dear to me: friends, parents, sisters, nieces and nephews. I spent most of my time hurting and alone, not knowing why I was afraid to face the world. Buried deep within myself were hurts I did not want to face—which had killed my dreams and zest for life. God, my friends and family, through their love and support, came in like a disaster response team and helped me out of my catastrophe. I worked with my therapist to discover, handle and dispose of the emotional baggage I was carrying.

Another method of “body removal” in personal disasters requires a more literal action. A person in an abusive relationship may need help to remove themselves from the situation. They may not have the means or strength to do it alone. Again, it takes a delicate combination of speed and precision to safely move them to a protected environment.

Delicate handling is also required when addressing a loved one’s addictions, be it drugs, alcohol, sex, food, or video gaming. One misstep, no matter how well-intended the action is, can create more problems.

Handling disasters can be the most difficult endeavor anyone undertakes. Consequences and risks must be accepted. Relief groups in physical disasters risk their lives and well-being. They face dangers from disease, structurally unsafe buildings, and hazardous materials. The horrors they experience cause emotional and psychological stress. Friends and family risk relationships and sometimes their personal well-being in order to help those they care about in personal disasters.

It might test their strength to the brink of collapse, yet there is One who is there through it all: God. When we do His work, He is there protecting and guiding. As Christians we are called to help those in need, not for our own salvation but for theirs. Helping people by meeting their immediate needs often leads to spiritual outreach as well.

Aaron Kent, a graduate and now instructor with the IRR program, told me in an interview, “Meeting the basic needs of people in disasters often leads to opportunities for witnessing.” Helping others in their disasters not only saves their immediate lives but can also save them eternally.

You don’t have to be a responder to a catastrophic event to make a difference. In fact, helping with the smaller personal disasters might have the biggest impact for those suffering their own version of hell. Galatians 6:2 says, “Bear ye one another’s burdens…” (KJV). This can mean helping anyone with anything they need. As Christians, no matter where we are, we should keep our eyes and ears open for those who need “body recovery.”


Ellen Penrosa is a senior communication: public relations major from Lincoln, Nebraska, attending Union College.

**Special thanks to Aaron Kent and all the IRR students who inspired and helped with this article.


 Rescue Relief . . . to help virtually anyone who needs help 

Observe Look around you for areas of need.

Ask and Listen Invite them to share their pain— listen to their story.

Pray Ask God for guidance.

Seek Counsel Seek wisdom from pastors and counselors.

Take Appropriate Action Take steps to help the person in need.