Goodberry The Vine #005

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Disaster Responder, Grandfather

Bill Adams

Director of World Renew’s Disaster Response Services Program, Grand Rapids, MI

For a man who works with disasters for a living, Bill is incredibly calm. “Expecting the unexpected”, as Bill mentions, means to understand that life is full of surprises, yes. But it is also acknowledging that what is unexpected for us is not so with God. Bill holds to this sovereignty of God--“expecting the unexpected” is not simply an expression about the uncertainties of life, but a testament to the absolute control of God the Father. There are things we cannot understand, suffering, disasters, and pains. But just as the story of Job goes, Bill chooses the difficult “and yet” profession. And yet, God is God. And yet, God is good. Witness in Bill’s story the deep stability, empathy, and self-abandon that comes from these confessions. Witness the eye of the storm.

You came to World Renew around ten years ago; can you kind of describe your journey to arrive here?

How did I come to you? Well, I was an engineer and spent 30 years in business. My wife and I raised our children, lived all over the United States, and I was always a little bit discontent. I was always looking for something more, where I could be serving God more and certainly my fellow man somehow. I was always frustrated. But I did well and so we raised a family. When the kids were raised, I told my wife, I really want try to do something different, I think there’s something else. So I retired and we moved to Wisconsin. The church I attended had a bulletin announcement that they needed somebody to come and work in this job in Grand Rapids. I thought about it. And it turned out that a lot of the skills that I had acquired over the years in my business were exactly what was needed for this job. It was ten years ago [in August] that I joined World Renew (at the time called the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, CRWRC). I have been very happy ever since.

Did that happiness come immediately?

I think it came over time. Well, some of it was immediate. Two things: one, working with volunteers who are Christians that really want to serve. We have maybe 3,000 volunteers that we send out on assignments during the year, so it’s a big program. Getting to know the volunteers was wonderful. Then, actually meeting the people in a disaster community. Typically the places we work are poor communities that have been stricken by disaster. The people don’t have much to start, and a lot of times their homes were in pretty bad shape even before the storm came . When I am able to go out and visit them, meet them, and maybe pray with them, it’s just wonderful. But part of me, when I began working here, because of my makeup, I wanted to make sure I was doing a good job! I wanted to work hard; I wanted to work at night and work weekends. In the beginning, it was a lot of work; I felt the pressure from it. But I think I always felt a joy, right from the beginning. There was this satisfaction; this is good. This is good work.

Do you spend more time in the office or on the field?

About fifty-fifty. It comes in spurts. We respond to disasters in the U.S. and Canada. We’ve had things going on in Alaska, Alberta, Canada, as well as Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast and New Orleans, Oklahoma etc. so we’re really all over the place. We have a network of volunteers around North America and they handle the day to day details; really wonderful people. So I’ll take a trip, but I don’t have to be at every disaster site.

What does your work entail, then?

Well, I oversee the program. I’m making sure that we always have a good, healthy volunteer group. We have a lot of managers and we’re always having to recruit new managers and train them, so that’s part of what I do. And making sure we’re responding to the right places. It’s a little complicated. In the United States we have FEMA. So when FEMA declares a disaster, you’ll rhear about it on TV; it’s a presidential declaration and we know it’s a significant enough disaster that we need to be involved somehow. But a lot of the times there isn’t a presidential declaration and we want to make sure we respond there, too. Canada doesn’t have the same kind of a system like FEMA, so Canada is even more difficult to know where we should be working. The regional managers and I talk together monthly, giving feedback and asking them to do things, so we know God is leading us where we want to go. It’s hard to see that ahead of time (Laughs) but afterwards you can can see God’s hand in it.

My responsibility is to oversee the program, supervise our staff, and making sure they are doing the training they need, and responding where they need to respond. We also have partnerships. I chair a board of a National agency that World Renew is a part of.

Would you have ever imagined that you would be doing this kind of work at all?

[Pauses] No.

It was unexpected?

Yeah. When I was younger, the thing I thought most about was teaching. In fact, when I left my work and was in Wisconsin, the local Christian High School needed a teacher. Two teachers had left and they didn’t know what they were going to do. They heard that I was there and had some of the skills that were needed, so I actually taught for a year.

It was wild! I think the scariest part was the study hall. I had 40 kids in the study hall. (Laughs) But I taught history, physics, chemical drawing, computer applications, shop--I taught a whole variety; a full schedule. It was pretty interesting. I told them, “You really ought to find a real teacher! I don’t think I’m a real teacher!” (Laughs) But it was fun, and I think it went ok, but it didn’t seem like the right thing, it wasn’t quite what I was looking for.

Did you grow up as a Christian?

I was probably ten or twelve when my parents came to know the Lord. Before that, my dad was Catholic and he was a very religious man. My mom went to a Protestant church but didn’t really have a faith to speak of. When I was ten or twelve, I had a younger brother that was one year old and the local church wouldn’t baptize him. My mother got very upset and went to the pastor to find out why and he used that to lead them to the Lord. He explained what baptism was all about and she had never heard that before. He was a good Pastor. My parents ended up attending a new church, where they really received a fire for the Lord. At that point my parents became aware of Christian schools. I went to a public school but my younger brothers actually went to Christian schools.

How was faith a part of childhood, especially after your parents’ experience?

It wasn’t the same as kids that grew up in the church, I could always tell that. In high school I remember believing, but not understanding or sharing my faith. I was pretty committed, but I didn’t understand what that meant. I think I was still learning. It was in college where I was forced to take a stand, and take a position, and faith became a more serious part of my life. Then I met my wife. I think as we were dating, her faith was kind of weak, too. Then the two of us together came to a much closer relationship with the Lord.

You have to remember, this was back in the 60s, early 70s. There was the “Jesus Movement” back then. It was kind of a hippie movement, and it was really exciting! Back then, the drug culture was big. Young people that were on drugs would come to know the Lord and be delivered from drugs. You had these coffee houses opening up and it was the beginnings of more modern Christian music. The roots of that was back then. These groups were starting to create wonderful Christian music. My wife and I used to go to this coffee house on a Friday night, and the pastor was an ex-drug addict and had a band that played great Christian music.


I remember a couple times, we would leave weeping because we were so moved by God’s spirit and what was happening in people’s lives. It was a really cool time. I think, for us, that’s where we became closest to the Lord and thought, this is the way you have to live your life.

There’s a book I’m reading called, “The Reason for God” [by Tim Keller], and it’s a great book for people that have a modern mind, that questions some of the beliefs about Christianity. I’m reading it because my son is questioning his faith a little bit, and I plan on giving it to him. But this Pastor does a wonderful job and gets to all those issues; anything from science and evolution to some of the stuff that people deal with today. And people can’t understand, “Why would God send his son to die on a cross?” Blood, why the need for blood? And all these things of Christianity? It’s hard to understand in a modern culture.

“We [were] weeping because we were so moved by God’s spirit and what was happening in people’s lives. For us, that’s where we became closest to the Lord and thought, this is the way you have to live your life.”

On the World Renew Blog you discuss how it is not our job to question why, but rather that it is our job to be there in the midst of disaster and help as we can. Is that always the attitude that you have had? Or was it difficult in the beginning to see the devastation up close to?

I don’t know that I thought about it a lot in the beginning. It was the work that needed to be done, people needed to be be helped. Over time, I began to think about it more, because you hear the question so much, “Why would God allow this to happen?”

Over that time the Book of Job became my favorite, because it deals with that whole issue and it doesn’t really give you a satisfying answer, but it gives the right answer. If you take that and combine it with other Scriptures, it leads us to understand how to trust God, even though “He gives and takes away”. God is sovereign. You don’t understand why He allows things to happen the way they do, but He loves us and is in control. He will never let things happen to us that are outside His will. Ultimately, God is our choice. Even if it means I have to die, ultimately, I’m in His care. I’m not God.

I see firsthand how God uses disasters and suffering, to allow His people to respond and show up. When two people connect, when a person who is in a position to help and someone who has suffered, when they connect, it’s really powerful for both of them. Both experience an incredible blessing.

Now, is it fair that this person had to suffer? I don’t know. That’s up to God. But the outcome, we can deal with the outcome. What are we? What’s our responsibility in all of that? I think that’s where we have to pay attention.

Is it hard to keep that mindset? That assurance that God is sovereign, it doesn’t waver for you at all?

No, I don’t think so. But see, I also believe we are protected and comfortable. You’re comfortable, right? I’m very comfortable. There are people in this world that are not very comfortable. I had a chance to visit Africa a few years ago, and I was with this family whose little baby girl had malaria. I held her on my lap and she was very lethargic, her eyes glazed. It was pretty obvious that she would probably not live long and that’s all these people knew. That’s their life.

So for me, what I believe when I’m sitting in comfort, would I believe it if I was not comfortable? Would I believe it if I was in suffering? I don’t know. I think I would, but I don’t know. It’s really hard. I think that’s why Paul says the sufferings that we go through are so that we can be a support to others in their suffering.

“God is sovereign. Ultimately I am in His care. I am not God.”

You’re right. We are very comfortable here. Many of us hear about suffering, we imagine it, but it’s never the same as living it.

Yeah. You may have a loved one who dies. Or you may have a friend who has a loved one who dies or is in sickness. We have our volunteers, a lot of them are older, and we hear about Cancer and we hear about these suffering, but a lot of our volunteers are people of Faith and they go through it really well.

So, the perspective of God’s sovereignty…

Well, it’s understanding that this is not our home. Hebrews 11, the Chapter of faith, talks about looking for a city of foundations whose architect and builder is God. We’re looking forward to that. We’re pilgrims. But when we’re comfortable it’s easy to settle down and think, this is it. So we put off death, we take pills, and go through all kinds of things to make sure we live a couple years longer. And it doesn’t quite fit with our life as pilgrims.

Paul said, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” I should be thinking of the things you can do here: be faithful, love your family. And the day we die is a glorious day. So to fear it doesn’t fit with our Christian faith.

Do you have key figures or mentors that have helped you along your life?

Here and there. There was one Pastor near Chicago that influenced me. Because we moved around a lot, we lived a year in one place, other places maybe three years or five years. It was almost enough to start developing roots and relationships. But in most places, we got into town, we lived there for a while, and you get to know people, but too soon you’re gone. (Laughs)

When you come into contact with people that have experienced a disaster or hardship in their life, what do you say to them?

When you’re bringing physical help to people, their home has been damaged or destroyed and we have volunteers that are fixing it--so that, by itself, is an encouragement.

But when I actually meet somebody up close and talk to them I don’t try and explain why something happened. I just let them know what a privilege it is to help them. I try to honor them. Even somebody that may be living in poverty, I want to let them know they’re special, and it’s a privilege for us to be there and helping. We’re guests in their community, we’re guests in their home, and to be able to pray with them and for them and for their family--I think all of that has a tremendous effect, an encouraging effect on people.

I think sometimes that’s more important than the physical work that we do to build a house.

The perspective of God’s sovereignty is “understanding that this is not our home.”

Do you feel spiritually satisfied with where you are and what you’re doing?

Yeah. I think having grown up as a Calvinist, you’re always hard on yourself. You’re always believing that you could be better. You understand your weaknesses and your sinful nature, so you’re always beating yourself up a little bit. Aside from that I feel very good about the work that we do. To some degree our life is more complicated than just our work.

The big focus of my attention is becoming, more and more, the grandkids that are living in the area. We have two of them coming tonight. My wife and I put a Bible study together for our grandkids. So once a week, we have two girls, a thirteen- and fourteen-year-old, that come over to the house and we do the Bible study together. To me, that’s another important part of what we do.

What do you think a leader is or should look like?

I’ve been managing for a long time in all different kinds of leadership roles. But over the years, whether in business or in nonprofit work, I have come to see that its about having a clear vision. What’s our mission? What’s our purpose? Why do we exist? If it’s a business, that might be easier to answer. Sometimes in the nonprofit world, I think that’s a little bit more difficult. But, having a clear vision of your mission and then inspiring the people that participate, staff or volunteers. We have seven staff, but we have three thousand volunteers. So being able to inspire people to move in that direction and to effectively pursue that mission, I think that’s what leadership is about.

That’s a great definition. What does your faith look like on the daily?

It starts in the beginning of the day with trusting God and going to Him, recognizing that this day is a gift from Him--recognizing our dependence on him. Realizing that it’s not me. If I accomplish something worthwhile that day, it’s not me but it’s Him through me, that He’s equipped us. He’s the one that gives us the strength every day and the opportunities. I’m convinced opportunities come about through His sovereignty. In some ways, you don’t know what today is going to bring. Not trying to be perfect, because we’re not. Also, how can we be faithful in the day?

It’s a matter of expecting, to some degree, the unexpected, and realizing that God’s hand is in it all. I often tell the people here, We don’t know always what we’re going to be doing six months from now, but we have to keep faithfully pursuing opportunities as they come, and then God will bring us in the direction that He wants us to go.

“Expecting the unexpected.” As I was driving here it started pouring--first day that it has rained in a long while. I thought, what are the chances?

You’re coming to a disaster.

(Laughs) That was uncanny. Expecting the unexpected makes a lot of sense, especially for what you do.

Yeah. Some people will talk about divine appointments, and I think that’s another way of looking at it; watching for what God is going to do in your day.

You are a leader in many capacities, this capacity, in your home etc. Do you have any words of advice or wisdom to those who are looking to be leaders?

Words of wisdom. [Pauses] Understand your skills. Understand what it is you are good at; what you can do and can’t do. Don’t feel like you need to be an expert at everything. What are you passionate about? Make sure you understand the mission of what you do, why we exist. like I said before, how can you inspire your team in that particular direction? To me, that’s a big part of being a leader: How do you do that? And how are you equipped to do that? What are the gifts that God gave you?

Also, don’t be afraid of hard work. I think in the business world, people are looking for the dollar. They’re looking for enough to make money. In our world, it’s different. You’re doing things for different reasons, for different purposes, and you have to be willing to invest yourself in it.

When you were transitioning from business to what you do now, was that a concern for you, the ‘dollar’?

I knew that I was going to make a whole lot less money here. When I started here, I was making maybe forty percent of what I was making at my previous job. But I understood that. It was a pretty good job but I was past that point. Financially, my main concern was that I would keep things stable so that my wife wouldn’t get scared. I wanted her to be okay through that.

I think at one point in my life, I had a vision of making a lot of money, like a lot of people. I went to the University of Chicago. I got an MBA during my career. My company sponsored it. I went the first year and I was excited. I was working with all these people that are business leaders. Then the second year, all of a sudden, I just had to say to myself, “Is this what I really want?”, kind of an awakening of some sort. I saw the people around me whose goals and purposes were strictly being driven by money, and was completely turned off. I had a hard time -- I did finish it, but I had a hard time that second year, because I realized, this is not what I want.

“It’s about expecting the unexpected and realizing that God’s hand is in it all.”

It must have been a scary and difficult change. But you did it, and you’re here.

I did have a couple years in between. I left the business, we settled up in Wisconsin, and taught that one year in high school. That was when we first went out on a disaster site. Our church friends said, “Hey, why don’t you go on a disaster assignment with us?” So we went out for three weeks, my wife and I, with World Renew.

At the disaster site, I thought, “Oh, this is really pretty cool.” I didn’t think that something further would come from that. I got a little exposure to disaster relief work. But I had a couple of years where I was able to--I used to use the word “detox.”--detox from business, get away from it a little bit. When I got this job, I was still a little driven by how I thought you were supposed to work. Even managing people, demanding performance, and expecting people to work long hours. I mean, business is a hard place. It’s very competitive. A bit of me had to adjust to the new world of the nonprofit, working in a Christian agency. I had to slow down because it was too much for my peers. I found it frustrating. You asked me a question before, and I guess there was a period of time where I struggled with that a little bit, now that I’m thinking about it.

Once I was able to slow down and realized what was important, I could focus more. I thought about it, originally, like productivity: We’ve got two thousand volunteers this year, and next year, we need three thousand volunteers; if we fixed twenty houses this year, then next year, we’ve got to fix thirty houses; as opposed to the people side of it, the spiritual side of it.

We often talk about the “calm before the storm,” which for you is quite literal. Do you have a resting place to find your own peace and quiet before you get caught in the busyness and urgency to respond?

My morning devotions probably does a little bit of that. I make sure I get up early every day and be in the quiet. I love hearing piano hymns, old hymns, very soft music as I do my devotions. That time is good for me, praying, reading, thinking and just meditating a little bit.

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave at the end of your life?

Well, that’s interesting [Pause]. I know different people would answer that differently. I’ve been in leadership positions, and people might think what I would like to leave behind as a legacy would be somehow related to my career or something, and it’s really not. I care about that a little bit, but I think as I’ve gotten older, and I had grandchildren it’s changed.

Eleven grandchildren--Lord be willing, they’re going to grow up in this world and then, as eleven individuals, they’ll perhaps marry. So, to me, that has become much more important to me as a legacy. That’s why we have our Bible study with the teenagers tonight.

Loving them, having them understand that they have a grandpa that loves them, and living a life that they can emulate. Not that they’re going to do what I did, but understanding that a life of faith is really important in this world. Helping them have the right priorities in this world, so that they can grow up honoring God and living a life that’s going to be productive for their fellow man. If I could leave a legacy, that would be it. It would be through them as they reach beyond.

That’s not what I would have expected. That’s beautiful. Thank you.