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UMVIM Stories and Impressions in Responding to Hurricane Relief

We have an unusual story about a volunteer from New Orleans, lost their home in Katrina, but went as scheduled to Honduras while evacuated and said, "Why not? I might as well go help folk while I can do nothing about my own situation, and perhaps it will make me understand even more the love of folk who will be coming to help me when that time is appropriate."

* * *

As I drove on 98 I saw lots of signs of the hurricane. Trees were down, signs were missing or broken, some roofs had tarps on them. A lot of traffic signs were leaning over. Everything seemed open for business. I turned south again on 35, the last leg to Sandy Hook. More trees down, more roofs with tarps and a couple of seriously damaged buildings were visible from the road. One place had a row of about six trees down in their front yard and other trees broken off about 20 feet above the ground.

Then, suddenly, I was in Sandy Hook, and following the signs to the United Methodist Church about two blocks off the highway. Church members who were working in the Fellowship Hall/Warehouse greeted me and showed me around. Pastor Van Moore came in and we talked about what we would be doing. He thinks we should work on clearing trees out of people's yards. A number of church members need help because they can't afford to have it done and are unable to do it themselves.

He showed me where two sisters, their brother and mother live in three houses. It was the place with the row of trees down that I had seen earlier. That is our first project. We also looked at two other places to work on. Some of these trees are big and may be beyond the capability of an amateur crew to cut safely. A truckload of supplies is due in at daybreak tomorrow so our first job will be to help unload it. Sandy Hook is now shipping supplies to churches further south that had more damage. Later in the week we may take the crew south to assist a man with lots of trees down.

Pastor Van took me to his other church, Hopewell UMC. The road there was lined with cut trees, the obvious result of clearing the tangle of downed trees off the road. The Hopewell church has roof damage, damage to the siding on the front soffit, the sign blew down and a huge tree fell in back, just missing the propane tank.

There are lots of stories that Pastor Van has shared with us already. A man in his 50's is caring for his grandchildren. A tree crashed into the middle of their mobile home. It wrecked the living and kitchen areas, but spared the bedrooms on either end. They continued living in it until last week when they go a FEMA trailer put on the property. A member at Sandy Hook has donated property and the church plans to build them a house, like Habitat for Humanity does. They plan to mill a good portion of the lumber from downed trees we are helping cut.

The church loves what they call God stories. An example is the woman who showed up with an asthmatic child that was sick. She asked for Tylenol and a case had arrived just a few hours before. She said she really needed a dehumidifier for the child, but was told there wasn't one and no idea how to get one. The next day while unloading a truck of supplies, the driver was baffled that someone had stuck a new dehumidifier in his load. A half hour later the woman came back looking for something and they were able to give it to her. So God moments are those serendipitous little "coincidences" that people of faith recognize as His caring, even in little things.

Oct. 3, 2005
Today was our first day of work at the site. We were up at six and unloading a truck at 6:30. It was a huge 18 wheel truck and we unloaded it all by hand. It had water, clothing, baby care items, paper products, etc. Six pallets of water wore us out. We had breakfast after unloading the truck. The ladies in our group volunteered to organize menus and food for the week. The church will be doing supper for us everyday, but we our breakfast and lunch. They bought food to supplement what we have available at the church so we are set for the week. While at the church this morning, they helped load a 16 foot trailer to send supplies further south.

The guys headed out to clean branches out of a yard. We decided the three houses with the row of trees down was beyond our capability so went to a different place. It was hot, dirty work, but we made some real progress on that place. It turned out to be the wrong place, though. Someone got their yard cleared, we just don't know who. Some of it is beyond our amateur abilities with chain saws. Tomorrow we hit the place we should have done today. It will be a real challenge. A huge tree in the front has huge branches broken down into the yard. I'm sure we will spend all day on it and not get done.

We came back to the church for lunch, but before we could eat Pastor Van rounded us up to help unload another truck. This was a rental truck of building materials for the house the church plans to build for a grandfather and the grandchildren he is raising. After that we got to eat and cool off. The church building is air conditioned and that is a life-saver for this Eureka 68 degree summer weather boy. I can't believe how much water I am drinking in this heat. Had a delicious gumbo and salads for lunch.

We quit about 4:00 and went to visit the Hopewell Church. It is a beautiful little church that is yoked with Sandy Hook for pastor assignment. We got back to the church ready for showers, but another trailer pulled in to be loaded first. We loaded it up mostly with clothes to go to a local catholic church for distribution. Then showers and finally dinner time. Fried chicken, potato salad, green salad, green beans, baked beans, and iced tea. We are not roughing it food-wise.

Debriefed with the team this evening. Everyone is feeling good about being here. They are all getting along and enjoying each other. The team has come together very quickly. The most valuable thing we bring is relief to this congregation in their efforts. The church membership is 125 and they are doing amazing things with such a small base, but they are getting tired. The ladies were pleased with the kitchen cleanup that our team did and they really appreciate that trucks got unloaded without them having to be there. They need to tell their stories and we bring fresh ears to hear them.

Speaking of amazing things, Pastor Van tells us they usually have about 75 come out for Wednesday evening bible study. Pretty good percentage I'd say.

* * *

The hardest things for me as a team leader were:
* Planning in a short amount of time and being prepared to be totally self-sufficient. Because of the rapidness of the trip, we did not meet the other team members until we began the trip. We all met at an interstate rest area where we had a short orientation and devotion. To be self-sufficient we took all our own food, water, extra fuel, two campers, extra fuel, and tents.

* Waiting to find out where the Mississippi Storm Center would place us and what we would be doing. The first information was to bring tarps, nails and chain saws. We purchased large tarps and the nails for them, packed an extension ladder, chain saws and the fuel and oil for them and a wheelbarrow. Our individual packing lists included safety glasses, hearing protection, work gloves, etc. We wanted to cover all needs. Two days prior to leaving we learned that we would be cleaning mud out of a church and needed hoses, and boots. We packed two hose reels with lots of hose, squeegees, shovels, boots, plastic gloves, buckets and bleach. By the time we finished packing the back of two trucks and a utility trailer we looked like we were moving south.

The most difficult parts of the trip:
* Seeing the destructive power of wind and water and knowing that the damage covers many many miles.

* Thinking, where would you start. Feeling overwhelmed by the extent of damage.

* Knowing that circumstances are so difficult for so many people.

* Seeing the entire contents of people's homes out at the street, waiting to be hauled off, ruined and knowing that some things like pictures and family keepsakes are irreplaceable.

The blessings of the trip:
* Meeting, traveling, working and sharing devotions with the team of 10 members representing five congregations in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.

* Being directed by the Mississippi Conference Storm Center to camp out at the Nugent UMC in Gulfport, MS. Though we were prepared to be self-sufficient, the Nugent UMC fellowship hall with its kitchen, shower and air-conditioning was a gift. Being able to eat our evening meal inside in the air-conditioning, shower, and rest well at night allowed us to be able to work hard and be productive on the job site. We thank God and the Nugent UMC for allowing us to camp out there.

* Meeting and spending time with the Reverends Larry and Terry Hilliard and their family. Larry is pastor of the Nugent UMC and Terry is Pastor of the First UMC of Pass Christian. Though Terry's church, the parsonage they had been residing in and both their vehicles had been destroyed and they were living in a camping trailer until able to move into Larry's parsonage at Nugent, they welcomed us with love and friendship.

* Being paired by the Mississippi Conference to work with Reverend Bobby McGill. Reverend McGill serves Holmes Chapel UMC in Pearlington, MS and the Valena C. Jones UMC in Bay St. Louis, MS. Pastor Bobby's spirit and love for his churches and congregations inspired us. We prayed with him and worked with him, getting hot, dirty and muddy. Our main task was to clean the mud out of Holmes Chapel. There had been 9 feet of water in the church for something like 6-8 hrs. When the water receded, it left mud everywhere. A group of teenagers had removed the pews, and scooped the mud off the carpet in the sanctuary. There had also been an effort to remove some of the mud from the fellowship hall. It was difficult for us to tear out the carpet, throw out the nice refrigerator, stove and microwave. We had to discard everything in the kitchen. Knowing how precious our churches are to each of us and how people sacrifice to give to their church, made it emotionally hard. Seeing the piano, organ, and drums ruined, seeing bibles and hymnals in the scooped out mud, and cleaning the mud and mold off the pews was heart breaking. Pastor Bobby has a great faith and believes that the Holmes Chapel, on that corner in Pearlington MS will become a vibrant church again, whether in the current building or a new building. He sees that church as a Light for Christ on that street corner.

* All the people that helped us while in Mississippi. The Holmes Chapel is on a corner that was busy the whole time we were there. The Red Cross stopped by often with offers of food and drink. We were offered tetanus shots, ice, and fruit. We met people from Minnesota, Michigan, North Carolina, Alabama and other places, all trying to help anyone in need.

* There is an organization (I believe through the Presbyterian Church) called something like Living Waters for the World. This organization helped us with the well and well pump at the church. There is no municipal water system where Holmes Chapel is located. The water source is a deep well. There was no electricity yet when we were there. We took generators in order to operate the pump and wash out the mud. After working about a day and a half, installing a new pump, provided by Living Waters, our two knowledgeable workers were baffled as to why the pump still would not work. The Living Waters volunteer, a wonderful young man from Tennessee, found a well expert plumber who spent some time working with us, finding the problem and fixing it. Apparently the circumstances that allowed this plumber to be available were something of a miracle as he was not supposed to be where he was that day. The Living Waters organization allowed for the well to work, provided a generator, and power washer and made it possible for us to clean the church. Talk about God putting people together!

* The people we met in Bay St. Louis. The Valena C. Jones UMC was spared major damage. The church became a center for food, water and supplies. Several members of our team spent a day in Bay St. Louis cutting up trees and clearing brush. It was an incredibly hot day, we were blessed by being able to eat lunch at the church and meet several members of the congregation, some of whom lost the entire contents of their homes.

* I am always thankful for safety while traveling and working. I know we were covered by prayers from many places and know that despite tragedy and suffering, God will provide goodness and mercy!

* * *

We began our day with prayer. Being in Slidell helped me to remember my blessings, I realized that I take many things for granted like family, water, food, church and the list goes on.... We were able to partner with other churches on the corner to help distribute the water, ice, medical attention, and meals. I believe it was the church's finest hour. In the morning session, we passed out over 12,000 bottles of water, 2000 breakfast meals, tons of ice, and treated hundreds medically. The work continued during lunch and dinner. The outpouring of love was overwhelming for the recipients and the givers. God was truly glorified in the midst of the storm.

* * *

The Methodist volunteers were over 100 strong at one point during that weekend. Under these tents, volunteers were smiling, counseling, handing out cleaning supplies and groceries, dispensing medical supplies, and feeding approximately 4,000 people per meal. It was truly wonderful to look down dozens of neighborhood streets in Biloxi, Ocean Springs, D'Iberville, Gulf Port, and Hattiesburg and see teams of church volunteers working hard to clean up this mess. To anyone not even familiar with the love of Christ this has to be impressive! To me it is the very best view of how Jesus works in the lives of ordinary people I have ever seen! There was no fear of the terrible conditions facing these great men and women. Instead I saw a confidence that could only come from something greater than ourselves.

* * *

On Sunday, our last day in D'Iberville, we had the privilege of worshipping in tent city with the congregation of a church that had lost its building during the storm. The church members were upbeat, joyful to be alive, and had hope for the future. I actually was overwhelmed by how much hope everyone we met seemed to have. I can only hope I would be as positive if the situation was reverse.

* * *

I sorted boxes of food that had been shipped in from various locations. This task was very meaningful to me--I was overcome with emotion as I unpacked boxes that I knew had been lovingly packed by people all around the country who didn't even know where they would travel. I was especially moved as I unpacked bags of rice from India. Each bag had a sticker on it that read the person's name who had donated it, as well as the saying, "God bless you all during this time of need.

* * *

There is a great spirit in Biloxi. I have never been to a disaster area that is so neighborly!!! Everyone is pitching in and working hard. And there is even a sense of humor. We saw a home that had been lifted off its foundation and moved about 6 feet. The entire home was surprisingly in pretty good shape. There was a hand-painted ad on the side of the house, "Houseboat for Sale".

* * *

The work here is without end... and today it seems as if we are starting over. Stood with a gentleman who was watching over his 90 year old father in a makeshift clinic in the back of the local theater. He told me of making a decision - whether to swim to safety or stay in his home with his father, a decision grounded in faith. The water was chest deep. Rescuers on a boat came by to pull them out. He had decided to stay with his father. A decision no one should have to make.

* * *

Driving down you wouldn't even know there had been a storm. Houses are still standing. Once in Baton Rouge you start to notice something is amiss. Their population has nearly doubled from around 500,000 to close to one million. Their schools are bulging and they are setting up new schools around the Parish.

Our first stop was at First UMC of Baton Rouge where volunteers led by Rev. Pam Holloway started collecting supplies for the evacuees housed in the East Baton Rouge Parish. It has grown into a huge operation. They are getting donations from all across the country, individual as well as corporate, and they are getting requests from all around the areas affected.

They house all donations in their church which is still used Wednesdays and Sundays. Donations by the truck load arrive and are sorted, then distributed to church shelters, schools and individuals almost as quickly as they arrive. It is amazing to see God's hands in action!

Our team helped to sort and deliver supplies. Then we headed to the bayous of Dulac where there were waters as high as six feet standing for three to four days. The people were just returning to their homes and the trash piles on the street kept getting bigger and bigger by the time we left.

The Dulac Community Center is a GBGM national mission institution; Alice and Robert "Rock" Rothrock are the UMVIM missionaries. We were put to work re-roofing the Clanton Chapel UMC Christian Preschool and clearing out the community center. All their donations from Katrina Relief, as well as their library and storage. were ruined in the flood waters. We cleared out the flood debris and scraped out mud. (We tried to relocate as many of the crabs, crawfish and frogs as we could!) As we cleaned a room they moved in to it sorting their new Rita donations. That was great to see!

Another part of our team helped save a family's house that was flooded off its foundation and was sinking into the bayou. By the time we left, four days later, the family was living in the house, with running water, electricity and a new floor! It was good to see that we could help even a small amount at a time.

In the words of John Wesley, "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can." We felt we had done just that.

* * *

Dear GBGM Mission Volunteers office,
Thank you very much for your help with my last-minute insurance needs. I am an active member of the Presbyterian/New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs, New York and learned of the UMCOR effort in Abbeville, Louisiana from friends in Saratoga who have organized relief for that area. I got a lot done at the home of Ulysse & Simonia Gayneaux near Abbeville this week. They are a couple of genuine Cajun personalities - there's lots of laughter & hugging & a little zydeco dancing punctuating the work & donkeys braying & roosters crowing non-stop. Thanks again for your help and kindness.


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