Courage in the times of disaster: St. Aidan’s, San Francisco, and their work with disaster resilience

Posted on October 30, 2012

Disaster. For those of us living in San Francisco, disaster summons up one word: earthquake. Images of liquefied earth, walls lurching and bending, and worldly goods crashing to the floor flash before our eyes. Worse perhaps is the fear of not knowing where our loved ones are or if they have survived. And if so, how will we all face the next day, the next week, the next month? 

For the Rev. Tommy Dillon, rector of St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in the Diamond Heights neighborhood of San Francisco, the word disaster also brings back the memories of Hurricane Katrina — the costliest natural disaster in American history — and the hurricane that ravaged his home state of Louisiana. 

Before he became rector of St. Aidan’s, the  Rev. Dillon was vicar of St. Augustine's Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He witnessed first-hand how a community suffers during a disaster and how it struggles in the weeks to follow. He saw homes destroyed, utilities shut off with no promise of power returning, and merchants fleeing instead of remaining to rebuild. The calamity was made even worse by the death of his father a week before the storm hit. 

Instead of focusing on the immediate needs of their grieving family, the Dillons answered the call of the Red Cross, who asked if they would use their father’s catering business to serve those who were housed in the shelters in Baton Rouge. They said yes, and from the September 2005 through November 2005, they served over 30,000 meals a day to people in over 168 shelters. 

On November 3, 2005, the  Rev. Dillon received the call to become rector of St. Aidan’s and moved the following January to San Francisco. He quickly became “Tommy” to all he met in his new home. The memory of Katrina and its devastation, however, did not disappear from his mind. In one of his first roles as rector, he attended a disaster preparedness conference hosted by the San Francisco Interfaith Council. He was accompanied by Ms. Betsy Eddy, a long-standing member of St. Aidan’s who also felt drawn to this ministry. After the presentation, both Tommy and Betsy knew that their church, not to mention the surrounding neighborhood of Diamond Heights, was not adequately prepared to survive a disaster, be it natural or manmade, global or centered in their very backyard. It would have been easy at this point to just out-source this job, to let another organization sweep in and take over. It took a good deal of courage and faith to say, “No, that’s not the right solution.” Tommy had seen the success of a grass-roots level response to disaster during Katrina. He, Betsy and the members of St. Aidan’s Church knew his church needed to take this into its own hands — hence the birth of the St. Aidan’s Church Emergency Preparedness Committee.

The primary focus of this committee was to educate their congregation in disaster preparedness: does St. Aidan’s have what it needs on hand in case calamity strikes? Where do the parishioners go? What do they do? In asking those questions, Tommy and the members of the committee had to ask themselves what “we” means for the community. 

St. Aidan’s church sits atop a hill in the Diamond Heights neighborhood. This area is one of the many San Francisco micro-villages that are nestled amongst the city’s forty-eight hills. While the homes sit on bedrock, a good deal of the population consists of lower income residents and senior citizens, both of whom are at high risk during and after a disaster. 

Should the St. Aidan’s Church Emergency Preparedness Committee focus solely on educating their parishioners on how to deal with the immediate disaster? It would be easier to prepare a smaller population, as there were so few resources to go around both in terms of volunteers’ time and money. 

However, the committee felt a calling to serve not only those who sat in the pews on Sunday, but to reach out to the greater community. Another act of courage was required. Thus, their committee expanded into the Diamond Heights Emergency Preparedness Planning Workgroup. The “we of the church” became “all of us.” 

In July 2008, this group began meeting with local stakeholders in the community, such as Jeanette Oliver, the manager of the Diamond Heights Shopping Center, Greg Carey, coordinator of the Diamond Heights Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams (NERT), Annie Shynebaugh, manager of the Diamond View Resident’s Association, and coordinators from SF CARD (San Francisco Communities Responding to Disaster), to name a but few. Their meetings focused on joining together as a community to ensure that Diamond Heights would not only bounce back after a disaster, but would thrive. The meetings were held at St. Aidan’s, which served as the group’s spiritual hub.

The organization quickly gained momentum. It sponsored two health fairs: one serving adults and children, another for children alone. It also hosted a two day training session for the supervisors and managers of the surrounding housing complexes and it created a neighborhood disaster ready guide for home and businesses ( Future plans include hosting a large neighborhood party to be held at St. Aidan’s, encouraging the neighbors to come and get to know each other while providing information on disaster preparedness.

During this time, City Hall had embraced the role of faith-based communities in disaster relief. Daniel Homsey, Director of Strategic Initiatives for City Administrator's Office became Project Manager for an initiative called the Neighborhood Empowerment Network, a coalition of residents, community supported organizations, nonprofits, academic institutions, and government agencies with the mission to empower residents with the capacity and resources to build, and steward, strong sustainable communities. Mr. Homsey traveled with Mayor Lee to New Orleans to study what the region had learned post Katrina. After the hurricane, merchants and residents alike had fled neighborhoods, creating an impossible situation for renewal. In order for a neighborhood to thrive long term, disaster resilience was necessary. The neighborhood itself had to lead the recovery effort. Effective models included faith based organizations working in tandem with the local merchants and property managers. It made sense. After a disaster, how can you return to your home if you don’t expect power to be turned on for another month? How can a family eat if the only operational grocery store is miles away? Recovery couldn’t take place in a vacuum. The residents, the merchants, the church — they were all interrelated.

As fate would have it, Daniel Homsey’s mother had been a parishioner of St. Aidan’s and showed him an article about the work of the Diamond Heights Emergency Preparedness Planning Workgroup in the church’s newsletter. In the summer of 2012, Daniel Homsey approached Tommy and the vestry of St. Aidan’s in the hopes of working together and developing a model for faith-based, self-coordinated, neighborhood-centric initiative that could be deployed across the city and the country. 

During this time, the Episcopal Diocese of California realized that since there was no organized disaster plan for the diocesan offices and congregations, they needed to take its own steps in disaster preparedness. They wanted each congregation armed with the tools to withstand a disaster. In February 2012, Tommy trained to be the Diocesan Disaster Coordinator with Episcopal Relief and Development.

In order to successfully draft a model plan with Daniel Homsey and City Hall, Tommy and the members of St. Aidan’s worked to obtain the services of an intern from the Episcopal Service Corp. This required yet another act of courage as the church needed to come up with the required funding. Although small, St. Aidan’s was a highly dynamic church with various ministries, including its highly successful Food Pantry, yet had scant resources to spare. 

Taking a leap of faith, Tommy interviewed and selected Alex Dermody-McKeen, a recent graduate from Emory University who was spending a year in the Bay Area with five other interns who are living in an intentional community and working in different sites around the diocese. They, along with the neighborhood disaster team, worked together with City Hall in drafting a preliminary model plan. As part of this plan, St. Aidan’s Church would serve as the center for Disaster Response. There, working in tandem with the Red Cross, the members of the St. Aidan’s Food Pantry would distribute food and water to those in need. Nearby St. Nicholas’ Church would provide the necessary shelter. Future steps would include the development of call lists in order to verify that all Diamond Heights residents would be accounted for after a disaster — no one would be left in need. This was especially important, as Diamond Heights was approaching its fiftieth anniversary and a large percentage of the population was elderly.

Tommy Dillon, Betsy Eddy, and the members of St. Aidan’s dedicated to disaster preparedness have exemplified time and again the virtues of courage, compassion, and diligence. From these repeated acts, St. Aidan’s Church has truly become the church of the neighborhood — not necessarily because of what happens there on Sunday, but because of what happens on a day-to-day basis. When asked about St. Aidan’s, a local resident who was not a parishioner stated, “This is my church.” 

In preparing the community for the worst, the  Rev. Tommy Dillon, Betsy Eddy, and those of St. Aidan’s have created a stronger, more united neighborhood. It takes courage to reach out — not knowing if you will succeed, not knowing if the resources will run out, not knowing if anyone will show up. They have done so much with so few resources and acted with such compassion, courage, and diligence. They deserve our prayers and support. 


Author Sarah Glover is a writer and recovering CPA, who lives in San Francisco in an old house with a brood of people — some taller, some shorter, all of whom she adores. Sarah's short stories and essays have appeared in anthologies, magazines, and on the radio. She also penned a few musical comedies and forced fine actors to make fools of themselves for charity. Sarah's first novel, Grave Refrain, was released Valentine's Day 2012.