Art Vigil had lived on a rural mountainside farm near Pendaries, New Mexico, a village on the east side of Hermits Peak, for decades. But last April, he lost everything. Wildfires ripped through the northern part of the state after a prescribed burn by the U.S. Forest Service grew out of control, tearing through nearly 350,000 acres and destroying hundreds of homes, farms, and irrigation canals that had sustained its rural communities for centuries. Months later, torrential rains pummeled the same area, driving silt and debris from the blaze into homes and contaminating the region’s primary water supply.
“A lot of people thought FEMA was coming through like a knight in shining armor,” Vigil said. Instead, the actions of the Federal Emergency Management Agency left New Mexicans infuriated. After opening disaster recovery centers weeks after the blaze began, it quickly denied the claims of many New Mexicans, often without explanation. Vigil applied for assistance with clearing the parts of his home that had been destroyed. He said FEMA sent a contractor to clean up parts of his property but not the four adobe walls, which were still standing but structurally unsound.
Vigil’s experience with the agency was a stark contrast to the help he got from a Mennonite group that arrived at his property a few days after the blaze. “They took all the metal debris, questions unasked,” he said. “They were the first ones there.” Shortly after the Mennonites, the evangelical relief behemoth Samaritan’s Purse showed up to help Vigil sift through the debris and clear his property before further damage could be done. As Vigil stood near the ruins of his home, searching for salvageable remnants of his possessions, one Samaritan’s Purse volunteer pulled him aside. “He asked me if he could read me a few words of the Lord,” said Vigil, who described his interaction with the volunteer as positive. The request didn’t make him uncomfortable—he was just grateful for the help.
Vigil’s experience is becoming commonplace among Americans recovering from disasters. The Trump administration routinely took millions from FEMA and diverted it to COVID-19 relief and the detention of asylum-seekers on the southern border, kneecapping the already overstretched agency. Things have gotten a bit better since then: FEMA expanded its overall climate resilience funding to more than $3 billion in 2022—up from $700 million in 2020, according to press secretary Jeremy Edwards—and it also received $6.8 billion for climate mitigation projects from Biden’s infrastructure bill. Even so, the agency is simply not equipped to meet the gargantuan task of fully responding to more frequent and extreme hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and other climate disasters. It’s also not always nimble enough to meet urgent post-disaster needs. “After a disaster occurs, it is often a voluntary or faith-based group who provides the most essential services first, like food, clothing or immediate shelter,” Edwards said in an email. He said the agency actively works with faith-based organizations throughout the year, relying on them as the first eyes and ears on the ground.
The Christian relief organizations that have stepped in as first responders—with little oversight—are diverse, spanning from well-intentioned community churches with decades of goodwill to billion-dollar evangelical charities that use far-right outrage to fundraise and take advantage of disaster to spread their gospel.
The overwhelming majority of these organizations’ on-the-ground volunteers serve out of genuine compassion. But some of the country’s largest disaster charities are helmed by far-right extremist leaders who encourage volunteers to make proselytization a main part of their mission, bragging in press releases about how many disaster victims “prayed to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” For Samaritan’s Purse, that leader is president and CEO Franklin Graham, the evangelical titan who has called Islam a violent religion, compared trans people with pedophiles, and praised Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay policies, saying LGBT people will burn in “the flames of hell.”
Samaritan’s Purse, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment across several weeks, was founded in 1970 by Baptist pastor Robert Pierce, who remained president of the North Carolina–based charity until his death in 1978. Graham took the helm the following year and has grown it into a $1 billion behemoth, doubling its revenue since 2014. Among the large ecosystem of evangelical relief organizations, Samaritan’s Purse is one of the largest, ranking 23rd in the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of top 25 U.S. charities in terms of cash support.
Although Samaritan’s Purse receives funding from domestic and international agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development and the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, the vast majority of its dollars come from private donations. And many of those donors are swayed by Graham’s social media presence, where he often sandwiches updates and donation links for Samaritan’s Purse between culture-war screeds.
“He almost rules Facebook,” said Andy Rowell, a ministry leadership professor at Bethel Seminary. Graham’s Facebook posts frequently had higher engagement rates than Trump’s during his presidency, wading into culture wars and fundraising off the back of them; Samaritan’s Purse brought in more than $1 billion in 2021 alone, according to its audited financial records, mostly donations from individuals. “It was this perfect vehicle of boomers in their 50s, 60s, and 70s,” Rowell said. “It’s just the perfect clientele for him.”
Rowell, along with others in the wider Christian community, has questions about where all that money goes. Graham made more than $800,000 in 2021 in his role as head of Samaritan’s Purse, according to the organization’s tax filings. And the organization has used many of its donations to pad its cash reserves; in 2020, it reported a larger profit than it spent on U.S. disaster relief.
On the ground, Samaritan’s Purse is known for its quick-strike response strategy, sending trailers and planes of supplies to high-profile disasters. “They are the rapid response team of the evangelical movement,” said Warren Smith, president of Christian financial watchdog Ministry Watch. “They’re an organization that runs toward the fire.” This is thanks in part to Vice President Ken Isaacs, the “Indiana Jones of the Christian relief world,” Smith said. Isaacs, a former international development official in the George W. Bush administration, was nominated by Trump in 2018 to head the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration, which coordinates billions in funding for migrants around the world. But after social media posts came to light in which Isaacs called Muslims inherently violent, suggested that Christians should receive priority in relief efforts, and denied climate change, the nomination—usually a rubber-stamp approval—was rejected (and Isaacs remained in his Samaritan’s Purse job).
The organization’s speedy response and omnipresence at high-profile disaster sites has given it countless opportunities to mix faith—and politics—with relief. After Hurricane Ian walloped Florida last year, MyPillow CEO and election denier Mike Lindell traveled to Samaritan’s Purse relief sites, right-wing TV cameras in tow, to hand out thousands of pillows, including children’s pillows with pictures of creation stories from the Bible. There’s a sense, Rowell said, that Samaritan’s Purse prioritizes causes that are “culturally popular for Republicans,” where the group can “make a splash and take pictures.” In March 2020, Samaritan’s Purse set up a field hospital for COVID-19 patients in Central Park, less than a mile away from a functional, empty hospital that could have provided more services but would have been less visible to media helicopters. Disaster relief volunteers, meanwhile, are asked to sign waivers of commitment to the organization’s ideology that contain anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ language, defining marriage as being between “one genetic male and one genetic female.”
Samaritan’s Purse is careful to avoid blatant, ham-handed proselytization, but it eagerly publicizes the number of people who manage to find Jesus, including in developing countries where there’s a greater risk of coercion. Most of the disaster victims I spoke to in New Mexico did not experience direct proselytization, and those who did had no complaints about it. But allowing religious groups with extremist views to act as first responders, without checks on their messaging, gives them a potent platform to reach vulnerable populations, whether in the U.S. or abroad. Disaster victims, after all, often have no choice but to take any help they can get.
When FEMA set up its operations base north of Las Vegas, New Mexico, trailers from Samaritan’s Purse and other Christian relief groups were already dotting the side of the main highway to the town of Mora. And FEMA was rejecting nearly 90 percent of all aid applications as of March 2022, according to a Washington Post investigation that looked at FEMA responses across the country. In New Mexico, the agency often found itself justifying aid rejections, fending off angry residents at public meetings, and publishing sharply worded news releases.
Even after the Biden administration greenlighted $2.5 billion in wildfire recovery funds for New Mexico last summer—an unprecedented sum for an ongoing disaster—FEMA’s molasses-paced bureaucracy has kept much of that money from actually reaching those affected by the wildfires. Edwards said in an email that the agency is opening three new claims offices in New Mexico by late March and is developing new policies to “guide and simplify the claims process.” But while many New Mexicans have sympathy for FEMA and feel the agency is in an impossible position, they want relief now so they can rebuild their houses and lives.
Juan Ortiz, who grew and sold Christmas trees on 600 acres of land near the town of Rociada, saw his first relief from the Red Cross, which handed out rakes and shovels for debris cleanup and gave him $600. FEMA eventually gave Ortiz, who is 63, money to rent a temporary home in Las Vegas, but not before a monthslong, paperwork-laden process.
Like Ortiz, many New Mexicans have been forced to pay out of pocket to clear debris, find temporary housing, and begin to rebuild. Donato Sera, a retired police officer, was denied aid from FEMA three times because he had partial insurance on his property. But what insurance offered was nowhere near enough for him to rebuild after the wildfire destroyed the home he’d built on his Rociada property of 32 years, where he planned to retire with his wife. “It was like a nightmare,” he said.
The 73-year-old Sera abandoned his dreams of rebuilding his home and settled on buying a double-wide trailer instead. He regularly visited a relief center in Las Vegas, where teams of volunteers work with local organizations and smaller national Christian groups like World Renew and the United Methodist Committee on Relief to organize regular supply handouts and build ramps at mobile homes. But the most important thing they do might be the effort they put into talking to victims. “The people here, they understand,” Sera said. At FEMA, “you’re just another nobody, just coming in to fill paperwork.”
The federal agency bases its aid decisions on a formula that can feel inflexible—for instance, one resident told me she could get up to $199 to replace a refrigerator, and families can be reimbursed up to $37,900 for a house. After losing her own home to the wildfires, Vicki Garland, who is 71, was victimized by an identity theft scam by someone posing as a FEMA agent. But she also had an unpleasant time dealing with a real FEMA agent. When the agency finally offered to give her a trailer, she bristled as an official read her a list of stipulations over the phone. “They treated you like you’ve just come out of prison and you’re on parole,” Garland said. “They need to understand how to deal with people who are traumatized.”
Ultimately, accelerating climate disasters and under-resourced government responses create a complex dynamic: Faith groups are well positioned to respond to disasters with a human touch, the aid they provide is often desperately needed, and even nonreligious victims are generally appreciative of their compassion. But without better oversight, they also give evangelical acolytes like Graham more frequent opportunities to spread extremism. And leaning too heavily on religious groups—even less extreme ones—in the wake of disaster relief is a Band-Aid for an effective U.S. disaster response strategy, and threatens to exclude disaster victims who need help but aren’t comfortable mixing it with religion.
Charlie Brown, the West Texas regional coordinator for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, said that while he recognizes the efforts FEMA has made to emphasize the human element of long-term disaster relief, he also understands the frustration disaster victims have with the agency. “FEMA is the government,” said Brown, whose organization regularly collaborates with the agency. “If you have any issues with the government, then that colors your entire interaction.”
For wildfire victims living in the backcountry of northern New Mexico—and for Americans in future disaster zones, bitter at the government’s failure to protect them from the worst effects of climate change—Brown notices a tendency to push FEMA away but to listen to groups like his.
“With us, we come in and we say, ‘OK, we just want to help as if Christ were here,’ ” Brown said. “ ‘We are the hands and feet of Christ to help you. Tell us what you need.’ ”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.