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Jeffrey D. Brand


Religious Discourse in Times of Crisis: Declaring "Victory" After the Grand Forks Flood of 1997

This study examines the role played by religious discourse during the Red River Valley flood of 1997. Using sermons and news reports of statements by area church leaders, this study examines the way religious discourse was used to respond to the crisis. Church leaders and other members of the community used religious messages to provide psychological support to the victims of the flood, to reinforce religious beliefs, and to help strengthen and build the community.


The Red River Valley flood was one of the most devastating disasters of 1997. Up and down the Red River Valley, which borders North Dakota and Minnesota, communities were inundated with ice and snow, and then floods and fires. In the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks alone, more than 60,000 people were evacuated, thousands of homes were destroyed, and in excess of $2.6 billion of property were lost.

As in many disasters, natural or man-made, the victims turned to others for help and comfort. There are a tremendous sense of loss and trauma associated with such experiences. When disaster strikes there are resources available for the victims of the tragedy. Local, state, and federal efforts are always a part of the aftermath of any disaster. There are also service organizations, like the Red Cross and Salvation Army that provide much needed aid. Private businesses, relief agencies, foundations, churches, and individuals all make contributions of various types to aid those hurt by the disaster.


Restoring Community in Times of Crisis

In addition to the material needs of a community during and after a crisis, there are the needs for psychological and spiritual help. This study is interested in one dimension of the response during and after the Red River Valley Flood of 1997, the words and activities of churches and religious leaders as they provided aid and comfort to the flood victims.

The assistance of religious leaders and institutions in times of crisis can be vital. Stewart (1965) has argued that, during times of crisis, "people turn to churches and synagogues for meditation and to clergymen for consolation and interpretation of the crisis" (p. 256).

Allen, Blaisdell, and Johnston (1997) explain that the "act of hearing a sermon creates a common reservoir of memory on which the community and its members can draw" (p. 146). This study will examine portions of sermons and other statements made by clergy covered by the press, news reports that focused on the spiritual dimensions of this crisis, and other resources documenting the variety of religious and spiritual messages directed towards the victims of the floods. It will identify some of the strategies and implications behind religious discourse in a time of crisis.

This study is grounded in the claim that leaders of the community have the capacity to help heal and restore their members during a time of crisis. They accomplish this rhetorically, through the sharing of messages and ideas that help to reinforce the importance of the community to its membership. "Communities," as Hogan (1998) explains, "are living creatures, nurtured and nourished by rhetorical discourse" (p. 292).


Discovering Communal Rhetorics

To study the discourse responsible for the enabling of a rhetorical community, this paper examines the sermons and arguments of religious rhetors as representing a particular genre of discourse. Miller (1984), explains that "genres serve as keys to understanding how to participate in the actions of a community" (p. 165). The particular genre of rhetorical action this paper explores is the epideictic speech, which Condit (1985) defines as possessing the major function of "the shaping and sharing of a community" (p. 290).

Epideictic discourse plays a valuable role to communities during times of difficulty. Condit explains that an important function of epideictic speech is to provide definition and understanding to audiences. They will "actively seek and invite speech that performs this epideictic function when some event, person, group, or object is confusing or troubling" (p. 288).

To accomplish the goals of the speaker through epideictic discourse, the rhetor "tries to establish a sense of communion centered around particular values recognized by the audience" (Perelman, 1969, p. 51). As a form of argument, epideictic speech has value, for as Perelman explains, "epideictic oratory has significance and importance for argumentation because it strengthens the disposition toward action by increasing adherence to the values it lauds" (p. 50).

Sermons and other discourse by religious rhetors possess these epideictic qualities and are important sources for community building. Allen, Blaisdell, and Johnson have identified three strategies that help sermons to develop their sense of "communal consciousness" (p. 146). The first would be to "explicitly critique the individualism that was characteristic of modernity and that permeates many minds and hearts today" (p. 146). The second strategy would be to "talk about the communal dimensions of Christian identity" (p. 147). And finally, "the most effective way to nurture collective consciousness may be to tell stories that demonstrate the essential interrelatedness of Christians and of the Christian community to the larger world" (p. 147).

This study examines religious discourse surrounding the 1997 Red River Valley flood and its ability to contribute to the strengthening of community. Texts of sermons and religious messages were gathered by direct contact and through media coverage of events.

More than 40 clergy in the Grand Forks area were contacted and asked to contribute copies of their sermons for this study. Responses indicated that many of the messages delivered during this time were not kept or were too extemporaneous to preserve. Many clergy were struggling to save churches and possessions along with congregations. As a result, only two pastors provided complete or nearly complete texts of sermons for the study. Because this study is interested in the communal influence of these sermons, newspaper coverage of these sermons provides a vital and even critical source of messages. Portions of these messages were recorded in newspaper accounts of the crisis, and those fragments will be used extensively through the paper.

Reporting of religious discourse by the press is itself significant in this crisis. Regional papers reported on the activities of religious leaders and their congregations during and after the flood. This coverage served to amplify the message of clergy beyond their immediate audiences to the entire Red River Valley area.


Words of Hope and Comfort

Texts of sermons and reports of services show that clergy used the flood to reinforce a variety of biblical messages and to call for a renewal faith and spirit in the audience. The flood became an example from which victims might understand messages from the Bible.

Pastor Doug Diehl of Zion Methodist Church in Grand Forks chose Luke 8:22-25 as the scripture reading for one of his sermons concerning the flood. In that reading, the disciples feared death as they cross a sea in a boat during a violent storm. Jesus sleeps, unconcerned by the events around them. Diehl (1997) used this situation to describe the one faced by Grand Forks and the need to follow fear with faith.


The disciples figured that the life-threatening storm was the most powerful force they could ever encounter. Jesus was aware of a power greater still. The disciples were sure they were doomed to spend their last living moments at the bottom of the deep, blue sea. Jesus knew everything was going to turn out all right. Jesus was asleep not because he didn't care. Jesus slept because he knew where the real power lay. (p. 4)


To Diehl, the flood was like the storm faced by the disciples, and there was a greater power at work that would protect the faithful. This story worked well because it also provided hope for the future and a way through the current crisis.


It was because Jesus knew that when this nature induced crisis was over a power far greater would begin to take action. The same power that brought sister and brother together to fill and stack sand bags would open the hearts and homes and schedules of faces known and unknown to help us. The same power would fill the hearts of community leaders and citizens with hope and resolve instead of despair and defeat. (p. 4)

Diehl used a variety of scripture readings to make his points about the flood, its aftermath, and the recovery to come.

In a June 1, 1997, sermon, "The Joy of Losing," he reads from Philippians 2:1-11. He addressed Paul's letter and its theme about loss and what can be gained from such an experience.


We live in a world which teaches us that the more we grasp and the more we gain, the happier we will be. We live in a world where a significant element of the Christian church teaches that the evidence of our relationship with Christ is found in the quantity of material blessings we enjoy. This is all so very far from what is true. (p. 19)


Diehl wanted to emphasize the opportunity presented by the flood to the congregation; the lessons learned from the experience. "Joy does come in losing. We have and will experience some blessings that we would never have experienced had it not been for this loss" (p. 20).

News reports of the flood included many examples of the church's responses to the crisis. Two examples of the messages reported show a few ways the flood was interpreted by clergy in the region. The first theme was one of strength and resilience to the disaster. The Rev. Rod Enger of Grace Baptist Church of West Fargo, North Dakota, used the flood to show the power and strength people could draw from the experience. His sermon reinforced the message of community over the individual.


Last Sunday, Enger preached on Jesus' words recorded in Matthew: "And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock." "Of course, our firm foundation (rock) is Christ," Enger says, "but part of our foundation is our family and our extended family. I heard a lot of positives from all this. There was bonding" (Lind, 1997).


At Evanger Lutheran Church, lay minister Sharon Fox Bogen preached to the congregation in place of her husband who was helping battle the flood.


"Jesus is our strong dike, one that will never give way," she said from the pulpit, in a voice that often broke. "One that can protect us and deliver us from evil."… "He is our strength," she continued. "From him we will draw the strength to feed and clothe and shelter each other" (Lee, 1997a).


The flood tested the people's faith and belief. For religious leaders in the community, the flood became an extreme example of the challenges they must face together, with shared faith and strength.


Another theme used to interpret this disaster was to use the flood as a variation on the creation story or the flood of Noah in Genesis. The flood became a mechanism for restoring or creating faith and new opportunities for communion. The Rev. Tim Bauer of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Hendrum, Minnesota, explained the biblical power of water:


The Hebrew people had an understanding that water was chaos . . . But just as in Genesis, he said, God will bring forth a new creation from the flood. And it is already apparent in the way the demands of the disaster have brought the community together (Coleman, 1997a).


The Grand Forks flood was in some ways a unique disaster. Unlike the riots of Los Angeles or the bombing of Oklahoma City, this disaster did not take lives. It took property, hopes, dreams, and livelihoods. Religious leaders used faith to help to bring some stability and strength to people whose lives had been radically changed.

In many of the articles reporting this disaster, faith was a primary theme used to describe the people and their response to the flood. The Rev. Tom Colenso of University Lutheran Church in Grand Forks explained:


I think that people survive, and I think their faith remains strong and is strengthened through our support of one another . . . We embody for each other God, literally. We are God's helping hands to each other (McCutcheon, 1997).


This lesson was repeated in much of the local reporting and was even picked up in reports of the disaster by media sources outside of Grand Forks.

The media tended to portray the character of the citizens of North Dakota as unique and somewhat noble or heroic, defined by the strength of their faith. The community's response to the flood was often commented upon and used as a lesson to others outside of the disaster. Mayor Pat Owens of Grand Forks reflected on the character of the people in her community.


Grand Forks is a place of excellence.… It is the people, the spirit, and the faith that is in the people. We have no differences at this point. We are all in this together and we will survive (Coleman, 1997b).


Nick Coleman (1997b), a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, wrote about the people of the region and their response to the crisis. His message was designed to reinforce the national public image of the victims of the flood and their battle for survival.


There has been no panic. No significant looting. No chaos. No threats. Even as thousands of people evacuated their homes under duress, they stood politely in lines at grocery stores, yielded to cross traffic on the flooded streets, said hello and thank you to strangers. And even as city officials upgraded suggested evacuations to mandatory evacuations and placed curfews on large portions of the city, they were almost apologetic when saying they might arrest anyone who violated the orders.


This message of character in the face of the disaster was reflected upon by many who came to North Dakota to offer help during the disaster. Volunteers and representatives of aid organizations were impressed by the region's response to the disaster. The people were often singled out as different or unique. Major David Dalberg, the national disaster services director of the Salvation Army, commented on the character of the residents of Grand Forks in an interview with the Grand Forks Herald: "Their strengths are uncommon," he said. "They're people of a deep faith. They will survive successfully and be better people because of it" (Bjorke, 1997).

Congressional leaders, other politicians, and federal officials who visited the disaster also identified with the character of the community. This character was a vital part of the public image of the victims and helped generate the support they needed to work through the disaster. U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich described the people of the Grand Forks area as a "community of hard-working, frugal, common-sense people" (Fedor, 1997).

President Bill Clinton visited Grand Forks to personally view the disaster and to offer the support of the federal government. His words mixed secular and faith messages together, recognizing the people of the region and their response to the disaster.


You have shown that when we think of our duties to one another, our own lives are better; that we're all stronger when we try to make sure our friends and neighbors are safe and strong as well. … I saw something your mayor said the other day that struck me in particular. She said, what makes a community a place to live in is not the buildings, it's the people--the spirit and faith that are in those people. Water cannot wash that away, and fire cannot burn that away, and a blizzard cannot freeze that away. And if you don't give it away, it will bring you back better than ever. And we'll be there with you every step of the way (Clinton, 1997).


President Clinton frequently speaks in terms of faith and spirituality in his addresses, but this speech also reflects part of the larger national image of the communities involved in the flood and relief effort.

Within these texts and media articles, there are examples of religious discourse that reflect on the role of religious leaders as aides to the victims. Sermons used the Bible to connect the floods to specific lessons about faith and religion. Clergy also spoke of the community efforts to survive the disaster in terms of faith and religious belief. Commentators from inside and outside the community saw faith in action and used it to describe and teach others about the victims of the flood.


Faith, Relief and Recovery

The Grand Forks region received assistance from all over the United States. The outpouring of aid was recognized for its value and generosity in the way members of the community talked about it. Many descriptions of the aid provided in the disaster and recovery used religious terms and labels. These messages reinforced other messages of faith and community. In May of 1997, an anonymous donor provided $15 million to aid flood victims in North Dakota and Minnesota. She was dubbed an "angel" to the community, and her contribution had a powerful, uplifting effect on people in the area. The donation was divided into $2,000 gifts to each family who suffered from the flood. Eventually, the "angel" was identified by reporters as Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc ("Kroc generosity," 1997).

"Angel" status was conferred on many of the individuals and corporations who helped restore confidence, hope, and possessions to the victims. This theme framed the groups and others who aided victims in a religious way, bringing to bear the power of that example. Margaret Ramberg, a victim in Grand Forks, recommitted herself to staying in the community because of the inspiration of the "angels" who helped the people of Grand Forks. "Because of all the angels out there, including the person who gave us this furniture and the mayors to give us the confidence to rebuild" (Campbell, 1997).

Many religious denominations participated in the relief efforts. They were an important part of the effort because of the strength of their organizations and compassion. Bob Blom of Church World Services commented on the benefits to having religious organizations assisting during the crisis:


The key role that faith-based groups play in disaster recovery is that they already have local organizations right down to the individual, they are motivated strongly, and they will be around long after the media hype and national interest has faded (Lee, 1997b)


The long-term commitment made by religious organizations is still an important part of the relief to the Grand Forks community, even today.

One organization, formed by local churches, named itself VICTORY. This organization included 32 churches and one synagogue united to "help the whole person to recover by ministering to the spiritual, emotional, physical, and financial needs of individuals" ("Victory," 1997). The group is still active, like many of the individual churches, in the continual process of rebuilding.

The cooperative spirit among religious groups was an important lesson behind the crisis. The combined efforts of many congregations demonstrated the common missions and goals of a wide variety of denominations. In November 1997, a "Flood of Thanksgiving" service was held in town for more than 1,100 people. It was an ecumenical service planned by local clergy and congregations. Three church leaders preached 10 minute sermons on faith, hope, and love. Even though the immediate crisis was over, they still used the experience to teach their audience about their faith.

Rev. Dan Klug, pastor of Christ the King Free Lutheran Church in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, reflected on the flood: "Moving all the sand in bags in April reminded him of the need to build a house, spiritual or physical, on solid rock, not shifting sand.… There is a lesson in faith in the flood he said" (Lee, 1997c ). Similar messages of faith and hope were reinforced by other leaders at the service.

The flood provides an excellent example from which to view the importance of churches and clergy in helping a community recover from a disaster, physical or spiritual. The impact is never fully appreciated from the outside, but its evidence can be discovered in the words and actions of hundreds of volunteers, congregations, and clergy who pitched in to help the community recover.


A Discourse of Hate and Religion

Not all messages coming to the victims of the flood were positive. In fact, at least one set of messages directed towards North Dakotans was offensive and filled with religious hatred. The use of religion to further attack these damaged communities was controversial and painful. The Rev. Gordon Winrod, from Our Savior's Church & Latin School, Gainsville, Missouri, sent at least two letters to residences in eastern North Dakota which employed a language of hatred to residents in various parts of Eastern North Dakota. Citing scripture and other news information, Winrod (1997a) transformed this disaster into a punishment for communities that he believed had fallen out of favor with God. "In North Dakota by acts of God, Spring ice storms and flooding waters put ruling evil Jews in terror, and their servile Gentile citizens in fear. 'Trembling hath possessed the hypocrites.' Is. 33:14" (p. 1).

Most of Winrod's letters are rambling and unclear. They contain many anti-Semitic phrases and comments about Jewish faith and its intentions. It is hard to reproduce a section of it without reprinting seriously offensive statements. This example is representative of the language and tone of the letter:


Jesus pours out flood and fire on the ND Jewish financial center to make known what He wants His people to do to Jews. If Gentiles disobey, the Jews will eventually kill the Gentiles, as the Jews do daily, anyway: in demoralization, economic persecution and Jewdical oppression (Winrod, 1997b).


The purpose of this section is to illustrate the fact that religious discourse can take many perspectives and directions in the midst of a disaster. It can lift up victims and volunteers, providing spiritual reinforcement and material aid. It could also be a destructive force. Careful evaluation of the intent and source of these messages can help us to identify their attempt to harm audiences and to formulate appropriate responses.



As a study of epideictic discourse, this evaluation of religious messages reveals the importance to the study of a rhetorical genre. Miller argued that "genres can serve both as an index to cultural patterns and as tools for exploring the achievements of particular speakers and writers" (p. 165). This study of epideictic discourse reveals some of the messages that may influence a community in crisis.

Religious rhetors and other using the values of religious discourse succeeded in helping to define the community during its crisis. In doing so, they showed the powerful potential of epideictic speech "not only to maintain community values (a conservative function perhaps), but also to accomplish the progressive function of adapting our community to new times, technologies, geographies, and events" (Condit, p. 297).

The role of churches and clergy during a crisis is often overlooked or minimized. The press tends to emphasize the negative and dramatic facets of a disaster. Those messages do not reflect the actual experiences of the victims. During the flood, the National Science Foundation released a study on the emotions and experiences of victims of other disasters, like this flood. The study argued that "news media almost never convey positive emotions among survivors following a disaster, yet we found positive emotions of equal frequency and intensity as negative ones" ("NSF," 1997).

The messages revealed in this article show the potential aid religious discourse can provide to victims of disasters. The sermons and statements of religious leaders contained a variety of messages and intentions. Some of the discourse served to provide courage and comfort to people who needed reassurance during the crisis. In addition to government officials, religious leaders are important public figures in a community who can help encourage the community to get through a crisis. Unlike other leaders in the community, they are probably better known by their congregations and they provide a personal connection to a message of hope.

The religious discourse involved in this crisis was also instrumental as a means to help people of faith to place those beliefs into perspective. By connecting the crisis to the Bible and other religious messages, this discourse used the flood as an example of the meaning of faith. Victims could learn that just as faith could help them in a time of crisis, it could also assist them throughout all of their lives, in good times and bad.

This study reinforces some of the importance that religious discourse and actions play during a community disaster. The contributions of religious leaders and organizations were critical to coping and recovery from the disaster. The National Science Foundation report also reinforced the critical role these groups played in helping victims: "The more likely individuals are bolstered by early support from family, friends, co-workers or other assistance groups, the better they cope over time" ("NSF," 1997).



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