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Disaster Donations: 4 Issues Nobody Talks About

When disaster strikes, you feel compassion for the victims. You want to help, but what can you do? The easiest things you can do are pray and give. Your prayers really do make a big difference, but what happens to the money you give? Do your donations to disaster victims really help? I can tell you from first-hand experience, that your donations are absolutely essential to their recovery! Do not let negative media reports or social media posts deter you from generously giving to those in need. However, when you give, you do need to know a few things about what happens to those donations.

West Fertilizer Plant Explosion 4/17/2013

West Fertilizer Plant Explosion 4/17/2013

When the fertilizer plant explosion in West, TX killed 15 people and damaged or destroyed half of our town, I began to work to help our community recover and I learned a lot about that process. I won’t take time here for all of the lessons I learned, but I do want to point out 4 issues related to disaster donations that I had to learn the hard way because nobody ever talks about:

1) Organization for Distribution of Funds

There are two types of entities which can appropriately distribute funds after a disaster. In some cases, the city government can distribute funds, however, usually there is a nonprofit organization that assumes that responsibility. As I understand it, a city can distribute donated funds to its citizens by categorizing them and giving certain amounts to people in each category. For example, if you lost a loved one you receive a specific amount; if you suffered an injury, you receive a specific amount; if you lost your house you receive a specific amount, etc. Funds can be distributed quickly that way, but many needs will be overlooked and recipients may have to pay income taxes on the money they receive. If a 501(c)(3) “nonprofit organization” distributes the funds, donors can receive tax deductions, victims’ needs can be assessed on a case-by-case basis to make sure the donated funds meet needs in the most efficient ways, recipients will not pay income taxes on the money they receive, and the nonprofit organization can coordinate with other entities and to increase resources for victims. After the bombing in Boston, the city had a unique partnership that allowed them to used both types of entities for donation distribution. The city oversaw the distribution, but a 501(c)(3) was formed as the fiscal agent. That was the first time that an organization was approved as a 501(c)(3) for the purpose of “lessening the burdens of government” in disaster fund distribution. (See this blog post by the lawyers of One Fund Boston.) In our case, the only person at City Hall who might have been able to organize a fund distribution program, our City Secretary, was one of our first responders who was killed in the explosion, so our only option was to take the advice the Texas Department of Emergency Management and establish a 501(c)(3) organization.

2. IRS Policies Adversely Affect Victims

The IRS has published a document in which they explain how a 501(c)(3) organization can distribute funds after a disaster. You can find that document here. Unfortunately, the IRS argues in that publication that a nonprofit organization cannot distribute money to people just because they were victims of a disaster. Instead, the victims have to demonstrate their need.

“Under established rules, charitable funds cannot be distributed to individuals merely because they are victims of a disaster. Therefore, an organization’s decision about how its funds will be distributed must be based on an objective evaluation of the victims’ needs at the time the grant is made.”  IRS Publication #3833, p. 11
“An organization must maintain adequate records to show that the organization’s payments further the organization’s charitable purposes and that the victims served are needy or distressed. Charities must also maintain appropriate records to show that they have made distributions to individuals after making appropriate needs assessments based on the recipients’ financial resources and their physical, mental and emotional well-being.” IRS Publication #3833, p.13.
In my opinion, those statements establish a bad policy. I think donated funds should be distributed appropriately, based on what was lost, not necessarily on the proof of need. In other words, victims of a disaster should receive donated funds regardless of whether or not they have a savings account. When we have a bad law or bad policies, we have three options: 1) we can ignore the law and risk being penalized or punished, 2) we can accept the law and abide by it, or 3) we can abide by the law, but try to change it. I choose the third option. I am working on a plan in which I hope to contact the appropriate decision makers and encourage them to amend the current IRS regulations so that a 501(c)(3) can help victims of a disaster if the victims can demonstrate loss, instead of need.
3. Disaster Relief Is Not The Same As Disaster Recovery
There are two major phases in disaster response. The first phase is short-term disaster relief. The second phase is long-term disaster recovery. The first phase begins immediately as volunteers, local charities, churches, and government agencies all work together to establish safety and provide essentials like food, shelter, and clothing. There is not a clear transition from the first phase to the second, but they overlap as the community gradually moves into long-term recovery. In this phase, people need assistance with medical bills, insurance claims, utilities, construction, legal issues, etc. While the first phase can last a few days to a few months depending on the nature of the disaster, the second phase can last a few months to many years. When you give money, your donation will either be used for short-term disaster relief, or long-term disaster recovery. If you give to a local church or an established charity, that money will most likely be used for immediate relief. If you give to the big, well-publicized funds that are established after a disaster happens, you will most likely be giving to the long-term recovery efforts. Because of the IRS restrictions described above, the 501(c)(3) will only be able to distribute funds that meet long-term needs.
So should you give to churches and local charities or should you give to the big funds that are established after a disaster? The answer is give to both! The needs are real in both phases. You just need to understand which phase you are supporting. Do not expect that money given to a local church will last long enough to help someone pay their medical bills, or that money given to the big fund will be immediately available for victims to get food or clothes. The recovery efforts in West worked well because we had a tremendous outpouring of donations and resources for short-term relief and we received generous donations for long-term recovery as well. In the first few months, millions of dollars were distributed through monetary gifts, gift cards, vouchers for gas and food, prescriptions, clothing, and many other goods and services. Then when victims started construction, or received medical bills, or needed to replace vehicles, etc. the long term funds were there to help.
4. Forced Mortgage Payoffs
There is an all-too-common practice that is completely unfair and we need to find a way to keep mortgage companies from further victimizing people in this way! The scenario that bothers me looks something like this:
Let’s say Joe has a good job, makes his mortgage payment every month, and carries good insurance on his home. A terrible disaster destroys his home, but he will be alright because he has insurance, right? Not necessarily. The mortgage company steps in and takes all of the insurance money to payoff the mortgage! Now Joe, who did everything the right way, has no house, and no money to pay for a new one! The mortgage company got theirs, but Joe is left out in the cold.
I think that as long as Joe continues to make his mortgage payments, and as long as he can prove to the mortgage company that he is rebuilding a house that is comparable to the one that was lost, he should be able to use his insurance money to accomplish that. The mortgage company can even hold the insurance money and disburse it to the contractor as appropriate. When it’s all done, Joe will have a house and the mortgage company will be exactly where they were before the disaster. Actually, they will be better off, because the house will be worth more since it is newer, and if they ever have to foreclose they will make more money off the deal! If you ever experience a disaster, or if you have opportunity to advise someone else in a disaster, warn them of this practice and try everything you can to communicate with the mortgage company to avoid this devastating trap.
We need to start conversations about these four issues so more people will be aware of them before the next disaster strikes. We also need to encourage law makers to make some changes that will help victims in the future.

They Have Nothing – Why Are They Thankful?

I recently had the opportunity to travel to a remote village in Honduras where I met some wonderful people of God. It was a joy to worship with brothers and sisters in Christ who welcomed me like family even though I looked different and spoke a different language. They allowed me to preach during a worship service that was held in the home of one of the church leaders there. For the most part, the service was much like ours. There was a lot of singing and some scripture reading, but prayer time was definitely different than the way we do it in my church. I am used to one person leading a prayer and everyone is supposed to quietly pray along with the one who is leading. In this Honduran church, everyone prays out loud at the same time! The one leading the prayer just prays louder than everyone else, and when he’s done, everyone gradually stops. There is tremendous intensity and great emotion in the prayer time. I could not understand most of what they were saying, but there was no doubt that James would have recognized their prayers as “fervent” and “effectual” (James 5:16 KJV). I finished praying before the others and just listened for a while, and was blown away by one phrase that I heard repeated over and over. “Gracias Señor.” “Gracias Señor.” I knew what that meant, “Thank you, Lord.” The meaning is not what puzzled me. The fact that they were saying it at all is what almost brought me to tears. I live in the greatest country in the world. I have more than enough to eat, a nice house in which to live, and money in the bank. Computer gadgets surround me, I enjoy all kinds of entertainment, and I can relax in my easy chair with a remote in one hand and a Dr Pepper in the other. I am healthy, have a great family, and wonderful friends. I love my job and I love my community. I have many reasons to be grateful! But these people have nothing. Most of them live in a house that would fit in my living room. That house has dirt floors and no windows. They don’t need windows because they have no air conditioning. Most of them have no vehicle and rarely leave their village. They have nowhere to go for entertainment, no TV, and no computer. If they had those things, they would not be able to run them for long because they have very little electricity. Most families either have no electricity at all or they have enough to run one light bulb in the middle of the house. The whole family sleeps in one room and they cook on a wood burning stove that was hand made. Most of the people there that day were living with some kind of ailment or illness that I could easily get cured by a quick trip to the doctor or pharmacist. And yet, they were grateful! In my mind, these people had nothing, and yet with outstretched hands they were loudly praying, “Thank you!” Their gratitude in poverty revealed a part of me that I did not want to see. I had grown so accustomed to my way of life, that I had taken luxury for granted. I expected or felt entitled to certain comforts. I have failed to adequately express my gratitude to the One who gives every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). I guess I even lost sight of what really matters. They were not thanking God for the “good things” in life, but for life itself. They were thanking God for His love, His Son, His Spirit, His Presence. They were grateful for the opportunity to know Him! It is in that relationship with the Almighty that life becomes real and meaningful. Life is not about what we have, but Who we know. Thank you to my church family in Honduras for helping me see. Thank you to the Lord for my life, my family, and my faith. But I thank Him most of all for being my God and for allowing me to know Him. Gracious Señor!

Nobody But Jesus!

Who could speak the worlds into existence and then enter into His own creation?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who could take water and make it wine?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who could speak to the wind and calm a storm?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who could make the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dumb speak?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who could heal the untouchable with a single touch?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who could take a bunch of fishermen and make them fishers of men?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who could explain the mysteries of God so simple people could understand them?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who could turn a little boy’s lunch into a feast for a multitude?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who could tell a woman her past and a disciple his future?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who could be Light in a dark world and be Life in the midst of death?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who could write in the sand and save a woman’s life?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who could heal a sick child from long distance and raise a dead man back to life?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who could master the universe yet wash the feet of those who should serve Him?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who could be hated by so many and yet love His enemies so completely?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who could be completely innocent but die on behalf of the totally guilty?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who could suffer for hours in agony and ask God to forgive his tormentors?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who could come as the Son of God to die as the Lamb of God to establish the Kingdom of God all for the glory of God?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who could die a real death, lay in a real tomb, and come back to real life?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who could defeat death, win victory over the grave, triumph over Satan?
Nobody but Jesus!
Who has power to bring abundant life and eternal life to all who believe?
Nobody but Jesus!

Good Intentions With Bad Results

When I was about 5 years old, we went on a family vacation. We stayed in a 2-story condo that had a large balcony where people could sit and visit in the evening. I was on that balcony, but decided I wanted to go down to the ground. I climbed through the rails that were there to protect people from falling. My plan was to grab onto one of the square columns that held up the balcony and slide down it. A family friend who was watching us told me to stop but I didn’t listen. I had a plan! As you have guessed, I fell from the balcony and hit the ground. My memory of that event is fuzzy, but I believe I broke a tooth on the curb that bordered the driveway below. I had intended to go down to the driveway. There was nothing wrong with my intent, but the results were not what I expected and I got hurt.  Where did I go wrong?

Some time after that, my brother and I were outside. He was up the tree but he was ready to come down. I was on the ground but I wanted to get up in the tree. We had plan! We got a rope and draped it over a big branch. He held onto one end and I held onto the other. The idea was simple. He would jump out of the tree and on his way down, he would pull me up. We did not consider the fact that he was twice my size and there was no way I was strong enough to hold on to that rope with our combined weight. He fell from that tree and hit the ground. When he passed out, I thought I had killed him! We had intended to get my brother out of the tree and to get me in it. There was nothing wrong with our intent, but again the results were not what we expected and someone got hurt. Where did we go wrong?

When I was third grade, we were playing kickball at school. The play was over and I had the ball somewhere close to home plate. My teacher, Mrs. Fulton, told me to throw the ball to the pitcher. I had a plan! Instead of throwing the ball, I decided to kick it to the pitcher. After all, this was a game of kickball, not throwball! So I dropped the ball and punted it as hard as I could. Instead of sailing out to the pitcher’s mound as expected, the ball went straight for Mrs. Fulton and hit her in the face causing her glasses to cut her nose. When I saw her bleeding, I immediately felt awful for hurting her and then I was terrified about what the school might do to a kid who actually made his teacher bleed! I had intended to get the ball back to the pitcher. There was nothing wrong with my intent, but again the results were not what I expected and someone got hurt. Where did I go wrong?

I could go on telling story after story of good intentions gone wrong. I have suffered, and caused others to suffer many times when the results of a plan did not match the good intentions that hatched that plan. When I start with good intentions, but the results are not what I expected and people get hurt, I have to ask, “What went wrong?” After many years of asking that question, I think I have discovered an answer.

When your intentions are good, but the results are not, it could be because you chose the wrong methods to accomplish your goal. There was nothing wrong with me wanting to go down to the ground when I was 5, but I should have taken the stairs. There was nothing wrong with me wanting to be in the tree at the same time my brother wanted out of it, but he should climbed down and I should have climbed up. There was nothing wrong with getting the ball to the pitcher, but I should have thrown it like I was told. In every case (and so many others since then), good intentions led to bad results because of my methods!

For example, feeling strongly about a cause does not automatically justify any actions I choose to take for that cause. If my cause is just, but I use unfair methods to support it, I will most likely end up hurting people and having results that I did not expect. Simply put, when the end results don’t match my original good intentions, I have to admit that it was most likely my methods that caused the problem. This is one of those life-lessons that I have to keep learning. How about you? Do you have to keep learning this one too, or do you have it down by now?

Support West ISD School Board

Eventually, every leader faces a problem for which there is no perfect solution. He knows that regardless of what choice he makes there will be negative reactions and perhaps even painful consequences. And yet, he accepts the responsibility of making that decision and leads the group toward a resolution.

As a board, you have been faced with a relentless series of those impossible problems. Time and time again you have been forced to solve problems that have no perfect solution. In each case, you wrestled with the problem, sorted through all of the options, talked through all of the related issues, and then settled on your decision. Even when you knew that some people would be unhappy with the decision, you made the decision that you thought was best for our school district. Each time an impossible problem presented itself and forced you to make one of those difficult decisions, you made that decision based on what would provide the best education for the children in the West ISD.

Tonight, I want you to hear that there are people in our community who are deeply grateful for the countless hours that you have put in and the tremendous personal sacrifices that you have made for our children this past year. While everyone will not agree with every decision, please know that many of us appreciate your willingness to serve and we respect the motives with which you make your decisions.

Unfortunately, real leadership is not easy. It can be frustrating and exhausting. It can even be lonely at times. Please know that you do have support. Whether we like every decision you make or not, we do care about you and your families. Rest assured that you are in our prayers. Thank you for all you have done for our community and our children. Keep on working through the tough times. Keep on wrestling with the difficult decisions. Keep on finding ways to provide the best possible education for the children in our district. And let us know how we can help you accomplish that goal.

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Family Matters

Family Matters

When I preach I like to speak about topics that will relate to most of the people in the room. That’s why I don’t speak about family issues very much. We have so many different kinds of families. We have married couples, divorced people, single folks, people who lost their spouse, and students who are not yet ready for marriage. We have some adults who do not have children, some who have kids, some have grandchildren, great-grandchildren, or even great-great-grandchildren. We are a diverse community, which is a sign of a healthy church.

If I speak about parenting, some will feel left out. If I speak about marriage, some might feel the message is not for them. So I usually don’t speak about family issues that much because I know I can’t address everyone at once.

However, I feel very strongly that the church must address the family. The Bible is full of valuable instruction for families, and the church should teach the Bible. Furthermore, some in our society are working hard at redefining “family” and teaching their version of “family values.” Since there are so many other voices out there talking about family, the church cannot, and must not remain silent!

For these reasons, I feel led to talk about family for the next few weeks. Our new series, “Family Matters” will begin on Mother’s Day and conclude on Father’s Day. During those six weeks, we will talk about healthy families, marriage, and parenting.

If the topic for a certain Sunday does not seem to apply to you, I encourage you come and worship with us anyway. You may hear something that you can pass down to future generations or pass along to friends and neighbors. You also may hear something that prepares you for the future or allows you to express gratitude for blessings in your past. I assure you, we will all grow through this experience, and it will strengthen us as a church family if we learn and grow together! Join us each Sunday at 10:15, because “Family Matters!”

He loved us too much to stay

He loved us too much to stay on His throne in heaven, so they laid Him in a manger in Bethlehem instead.

He loved us too much to stay at the parade on Palm Sunday, so they laid Him on a cross on Good Friday instead.

He loved us too much to stay on the cross of Calvary, so they laid Him in a rich man’s tomb instead.

He loved us too much to stay in the tomb, so He came back to life instead!

He loved us too much to stay here confined in a human body, so He returned His throne in heaven!

 

Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”  Romans 8:34b