A place to lay their heads

5/2/2006

By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

Holding a visitation and funeral service recently at Gateway United Methodist Church took a little doing.

Paul Knight, pastor at the north Gulfport church, said most of the available floor space in the facility was being used by volunteers who were in town to help with recovery from Hurricane Katrina. The volunteers rolled up their sleeping bags, folded their cots and helped prepare the church for serving its members. “The teams sort of evacuated and helped set up,” Knight said.

That scene is repeated all along the Gulf Coast. From Pearlington to Pascagoula and many places in between, United Methodist churches have two things in common — storm-damaged communities and volunteers sleeping on the floor. Or the pews. Or anywhere else they can find.

“There has been no change in church routine,” Knight said of having as many as 215 visitors sleeping at the church. “It’s a question of coordinating each week what activities there are and what rooms are needed. The teams are extremely helpful.”

Zach Beasley, pastor at Gulfport St. Mark and Riley Chapel UMCs, agreed.

“We are able to work with (volunteers),” he said. “They are very accommodating. They know they are coming to stay in a busy church. They try to accommodate us and move things around when we need to.

“We are excited they are coming. They’re helping our people. It doesn’t bother us, and the congregation is very open to it.”

Ed Blakeslee of Gulfport, who leads the Mississippi Conference Katrina recovery effort, praises the churches on the coast for their response to the Aug. 29 storm.

“Local United Methodist churches were the real heroes in this disaster,” he said. “They all responded in some fashion to meet the needs of the community. They did this without a plan, without knowing how they were going to do this or how they were going to sustain this effort. They just did it. What would we have done without their magnificent commitment?”

That said, Blakeslee would like to ease their burden as the recovery shifts steadily into the long-term phase. Estimates indicate it will take three to five years to restore the coast to where it was Aug. 28. Blakeslee wants to see more places outside of local churches where volunteers can sleep, shower and eat. In addition to easing the strain on church ministry, moving volunteers will make their lives easier, too. Most churches don’t have shower and bathroom facilities designed for such large groups.

“Housing and feeding teams places tremendous stress on local churches, especially over an extended period of time, and conflicts, in some cases, with ongoing programs of the church,” said Blakeslee. “What we are doing is working to provide an alternative at six locations across the coast that can house up to 400 volunteers as local churches feel a need to phase out of housing volunteers.”

As those facilities start to come on line, they will provide both sleeping space and showers for volunteers. They will also contain warehouse space so that tools and supplies can be stored closer to work sites.

One such facility is nearing completion. United Methodists in two conferences in Indiana helped build a facility on the property of Heritage UMC in D’Iberville. In addition, a modular building is being prepared for occupancy at Gulfside Assembly in Waveland. Meanwhile, Seashore Assembly in Biloxi has repaired more of its facility to offer to volunteers.

At Seashore, the storm gutted the bottom floor of Fazer Hall, the facility’s motel-like structure that faces the Gulf of Mexico. Art Steinaway, Seashore manager, said a group from Aldersgate Camp in Kentucky came to Biloxi and separated the utilities of the top floor of Fazer Hall from the bottom, renovated the rooms and created space for 48 beds.

“They came down and really got things going for Fazer Hall,” Steinaway said. “They separated the power and water of the lower half from the upper half. We use the lower half as storage bays for supplies.”

Add in the dormitories that escaped damage in the storm, and Seashore has 128 beds for volunteers. In addition, the retreat center serves three meals a day to volunteers. It also serves as the headquarters for recovery efforts led by Samaritan’s Purse.

On the east end of the coast, Blakeslee expects to place a modular building in Ocean Springs this summer. St. Paul UMC in Ocean Springs has provided space on its east campus to CORE, which provides accommodations for hundreds of volunteers it coordinates in a tent city.

Putting up often more than 100 volunteers at a time does involve cost. Blakeslee said the churches hosting volunteers ask for a nominal amount from teams to help cover expenses.

“I don't know of any United Methodist churches that don't ask or charge volunteers a fee to cover incremental increased costs for utilities and food associated with housing volunteers,” Blakeslee said. “And, the volunteers provide these dollars freely and quite often much more than were requested.”

Not five-star hotels

Accommodations at churches hosting volunteers seem to be pretty standard. Most fellowship halls and family life centers at UM churches have at least part of the area set aside for volunteers. Some even have volunteers sleeping on pews. Classrooms serve as sleeping quarters during the week and then are converted back to Christian education space on Sundays. Volunteers bring sleeping bags, air mattresses and cots and put them where they can.

At Gautier First UMC, church members used plastic pipe and fabric to create cubical-like “rooms” for volunteers. Though not completely enclosed, they provide some sense of privacy at night.

Tucker Watts of Christ UMC in Jackson said he makes sure volunteers going to the coast from his church know what to expect. Watts has helped coordinate teams from Christ UMC and has made one trip himself.

“I try to tell them what will be there and what to take with them,” Watts said. “The first groups that went down last fall were notified by a team captain about what to bring and what to expect.”

Teams going down to Safe Harbor UMC in Moss Point right after the storm slept in tents, Watts said. However, soon they were inside a building that had been cleaned out for that purpose.

“By the time I went, we had access to a kitchen and were able to have a hot breakfast a morning or two,” he said. “The local people and other groups provide a lot of the breakfast and snack foods. Church members would show up and bring us lunch where we were working. I think that has consistently happened, local people continuing to bring meals for the work teams.”

Watts said he believes volunteers aren’t much concerned about their accommodations. While a year ago they might have stayed in a luxurious room in a casino hotel on vacation, they now don’t mind sleeping on an air mattress in a gymnasium.

“I think people who volunteer to go aren’t really worried about the conditions,” Watts said. “They’re worried about what they’re there to accomplish. The place to stay is pretty much secondary.”

Beasley agrees, but said he sees some benefit in having better accommodations. “I think that at some point we hope to get a facility up where they could be more comfortable,” he said. “That would enable them to stay longer periods of time. Teams really don’t mind.”

Making connections

While juggling serving as a church and a motel takes some doing, Beasley and Knight seem in no hurry to see the volunteers leave for many reasons. First, work remains to be done, and the volunteers are helping the neighboring communities. More importantly are the relationships and blessings that have come from the experience.

“We’re doing a lot of repeat business,” Knight said of Gateway UMC. “A lot of teams from the same places are sending teams back. The relationship to each individual church is a strong one.

“I think this has been a wonderful opportunity for Gateway spiritually and every other sense. Our facility wasn’t damaged. Having this extra ministry at the church has focused us on Christian ministry in way we weren’t before.”

Beasley said the response to Katrina might have made clear the meaning of the United Methodist system better than ever.

“Before the storm, we knew we were a connectional church. After the storm, we had the privilege of experiencing the connection at its best,” Beasley said. “The church has stepped up to come in and help us. We see we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. We see the church really at work within itself.”