Gulf Coast hurricane recovery calls for "Wesleyan Plan"

3/15/2006

UMNS Commentary

By Rev. Chester Jones

 

In early February, I attended "A Time to Heal…" a conference held for the clergy of the Mississippi Conference organized by Bishop Hope Morgan Ward. The conference provided a space and opportunity for pastors to share their stories of pain, loss, frustration and rage from the hurricane.

The goal was to listen to these stories and to help reinforce and restore the faith and hope of the pastors who have suffered so much. We were helped by Bishop Kenneth Carder and his team from Duke Divinity School.

As one of the few outsiders privileged to participate in this conference, I was moved by the stories shared by pastors. For many, this may have been the first gathering where they could safely and tearfully share their grief, unhindered by the need to put on the face of strength as they care for the suffering of their congregants. They spoke of rising waters, stranded parishioners, total destruction and a feeling of desertion.

Hearing face to face the heart-rending stories I have read in the newspaper and heard over the phone reinforced the very foundation of my calling to ministry - a commitment to pastoral care. As one participant said, "We are the story people."

Clearly, during this tragic time, when the devastation of the storm is followed by the frustration of the slow response and apathy, people are in need of listening ears, compassionate hearts and helpful hands of true friends. "Bear one another's burdens," our Bible tells us, "and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2, NRSV)

As we read the stories of underfunded recovery programs, homeless survivors and a loss of faith among so many people, there has rarely been a more important time for Christians to truly be the hands and feet, ears and voices of Christ in this world. The church must respond to this need with the greatest pastoral care we have ever seen or imagined. But while listening to the stories is vital, we must be moved to responsive action that fosters true compassion and justice.

 

'Provocative propositions'

Carder, who opened the conference with worship, told the pastors this was a time to "practice being a community of Christ." Being a community of Christ is a holistic call, and now is the time for our United Methodist connection to practice being the community and Body of Christ.

In doing this, we must think big. The United Methodist Church's Connectional Table has challenged our general agencies to come up with "provocative propositions," or strategic, visionary goals that can transform the church and society.

After hearing the personal stories of pain at the conference and reading the news of how broadly this pain is felt, I am convinced both the church and the state must commit themselves to achieving provocative propositions for the Gulf Coast region. The recovery efforts needed to address the magnitude of devastation left in the wake of the hurricane will call for visionary and committed leadership for a long time.

This is a call to address the needs of people who are poor and have little or no voice and are being put on the streets as federal funding runs out. More assistance will be needed for housing, health care, relocation and salary support as the region recovers. Healing cannot happen when we are distracted by the basic needs of survival.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief has done an incredible job of responding to the disaster, and United Methodists have responded with open hearts and pocketbooks.  This will help empower conference and church work groups to assist in recovery, and I pray United Methodists go in droves to help rebuild, but we must recognize this is only one part of truly living as the community of Christ.

 

Break the logjams

We must also advocate for the resources needed along the Gulf Coast. Too many people are still fighting bureaucratic logjams to receive assistance from our government. We must advocate personal and political involvement to address these logjams. The budget proposals continue to provide less money than the economists tell us rebuilding will require. We, as members of the body, must use our voices to speak to Congress and other officials on behalf of rebuilding the coast. The lives and livelihoods of our neighbors there must be a priority for which we are willing to sacrifice.

We are addressing immediate and ongoing needs through charity and advocacy, but we must not forget the work of rebuilding with justice. In most areas, it is the poor who have suffered the most, and too often these people are also people of color. To be the community of Christ, we must challenge the barriers of race and class.

This will require diligence and active participation for the long term. We must call for the voice of all to be included in the planning and rebuilding of the region. It is important that the church stand with the poor and those who have no voice to make sure they are not left out of the rebuilding process.

Also, we must continue to focus on our faith connection. Our churches must connect with churches affected in the region. Hearing the stories of pastors in the region, I realize they are not immune to the impact of this devastation. Pastors and congregations across the country can provide encouragement, prayer and assistance as these brothers and sisters in Christ work to recover their lives and communities.

 

A Wesleyan approach

Clearly there is much work to be done. We need big ideas and big leadership. I believe that in order for all of this work to be accomplished we need a "Wesleyan Plan." This would be a plan with a huge scope and vision that is inspired by our call to build God's beloved community.

I dream of seeing the church's most respected leaders head this plan to fulfillment: envisioning, organizing and implementing the holistic work the Gulf Coast needs.

The president of the Council of Bishops should appoint a committee of three retired bishops and a general secretary to oversee this Wesleyan Plan in order to assist the bishops of the four areas affected by the hurricane. This committee would help in looking at the large picture, seeing how the area bishops have many day-to-day issues they must address within their conferences.

I was privileged to hear the stories of the survivors. I was privileged to hear them move from grief to hope. But with this privilege comes the responsibility of helping them rebuild.

They each have personal, congregational and community struggles to address, therefore they need the strength of the connectional system more than ever. United Methodist around the country must come together to support them. They need pastoral care; they need financial assistance and resources; but they also need justice.

We must not forget that being the community of Christ requires us to serve their needs.

Jones is the top staff executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.