UMCOR / News Room / News & Features / Archives 2010 / 0625 - People’s Stories Inspire Domestic Disaster Exec

People’s Stories Inspire Domestic Disaster Exec

by Barbara Dunlap-berg*

"If you’ve seen one flood, you’ve seen them all. If you’ve seen one tornado or earthquake, you’ve seen them all.”

It is people’s stories that inspire the Rev. F. Thomas Hazelwood, the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s executive in charge of domestic disaster response in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean.

“I get immune to looking at the debris piles,” Hazelwood said. “But I never am immune to people’s stories—how they are transformed by the outpouring of love by The United Methodist Church. … It’s their story behind that pile of debris that makes the difference and that really touches our lives.”

Hazelwood measures UMCOR’s success by how well a community is able to recover, to return to some sense of normalcy. “No community that has been affected by disaster will ever return to exactly like it was before,” he noted. “What we want to do is to bring them to the new normal.”

Bay St. Louis, Miss., resident Tommy Kidd has an idea of what “new normal” means. Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina whipped his home, “inundating it with water.” A Catholic, he overflows with gratitude for the United Methodist volunteers who came to his rescue and helped him rebuild.

“I don’t think I would still be living here if it weren’t for y’all,” he said. “We are enjoying our house.” Kidd noted that the volunteers also assisted with unraveling the red tape required for FEMA claims.

Hazelwood measures success by helping survivors of disasters find a way forward.

“Sometimes it is rebuilding a home. Sometimes it is helping someone find a job. Sometimes it is as simple as making sure people have enough to eat or enough income to sustain themselves,” he said. “There are so many ways in which we interact with people in helping them move forward and to be self-sufficient.” 

‘How Do You Eat an Elephant?’

United Methodists in congregations and annual (regional) conferences want to respond after a disaster.

“They want to be in ministry. They’re struggling to figure out what to do. It’s like ... how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. But all they can see is that elephant. All they can see is the enormity of what’s in front of them.

“I sit down with them and talk about, ‘Well, here’s how you engage here.’ Suddenly there’s an ‘aha’ moment, and they think, ‘This is manageable. We don’t have to do everything, but we can be in ministry and we can do this. And it can be meaningful for us.’ All of a sudden, they breathe again. To me, that is the most satisfying thing,” he said.

Sometimes, the best work is done in advance.

Hazelwood recalled that he and Melissa Crutchfield, who serves with UMCOR international disaster response, traveled to Chile to lead training sessions last autumn.

“Then they had the earthquake at the beginning of this year. We traveled to Chile after the earthquake and talked to several of the people who were a part of our training and (heard) them say, ‘I can’t thank you enough for what we learned in this particular training because when the earthquake came, we knew what to do. We knew the first steps to take.’”

Volunteers are ‘Strongest and Most Powerful Asset’

The biggest challenge, Hazelwood said, is interpreting the needs and deciding how best to deploy volunteers.

“The strongest and most powerful asset The United Methodist Church has is its people. We’re able to use volunteers in powerful ways. Wanting to volunteer is great. Yet there are times when volunteers are not appropriate. There are also times when we really cannot.”

For example, he said, “We had such a tremendous outpouring of support after Hurricane Katrina. Now people are seeing that whole Gulf coast hurt again by the oil spill. They want to volunteer. There’s really not an appropriate way to volunteer there.”

A similar situation arose immediately after the Haiti earthquake. Now, nearly six months after the quake, some areas are ready to welcome volunteer teams.

Mike Yoder is the disaster relief coordinator for the North Georgia Conference. “Last fall,” he recalled, “we had a flood and were pressed into action. Since January, we’ve had 45 or 50 teams. We have 170 teams in our database.

“To do this whole operation, we only have two or three paid people. All the rest are volunteers.”

A former business owner, Yoder retired a year and a half ago. “I’m glad I did,” he quipped. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have time to work.”

UMCOR always needs funding, Hazelwood said, but it cannot be the primary driver.

“People want to do something. Not everybody has the ability to give money, so being able to channel that energy and that desire to serve Christ with their hands and feet, not just with their checkbooks, is something we are very conscious of and we want to help happen.”

If travel to a particular area is not feasible, he tries to redirect potential volunteers to make health kits, cleanup buckets and layette kits.

‘Where is the Spirit calling you?’

Hazelwood also cautions church members not to be overwhelmed by all the needs across the world.

“I challenge people to listen to their hearts, to really feel where they are being pulled to respond, and focus their energies on that area. Don’t feel you have to do everything,” he said. “Where is the Spirit calling you? Focus your energies and your ministry toward that because God calls us all into ministry. We just have to discern where that ministry opportunity is for us.”

Hazelwood cited “a tremendous outpouring of support financially” in response to earthquakes in Haiti and Chile and spring storms in the United States.

“We say over and over again, as people give money to UMCOR for disaster response or any of our projects, that 100 percent of that money goes to the projects. But (that is) because our work is actually funded through the One Great Hour of Sharing offering United Methodists take every year in Lent. We take the money that the people in the pew give and use it to its maximum effect,” Hazelwood added. “The pew sitter thinks that when they give a dollar or two, it really doesn’t matter much. But it does. It makes a huge difference.”

It gives survivors new stories to tell.

*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications.