United Methodist Church among top home builders

4/1/2008

By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

 

One of the benchmarks of the United States economy is home construction.

 

For the past few months, homebuilders have seen a slow down. One group, however, has been quite busy – The United Methodist Church.

 

Working primarily with United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, Mississippi United Methodist Katrina Recovery has become one of the largest homebuilders in the state.

 

"At one point we had 32 homes going at once," said Robert Sharp of Ocean Springs, director of the Mississippi Conference's recovery efforts. "We had to cut back because we were sort of overwhelmed."

 

Sharp said the recovery team has directed the building of just under 50 homes from scratch. Many other homes have undergone major renovations required after the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane. Sharp said most of the work has been done by UMVIM teams.

 

"Our UMVIM community has been phenomenal," Sharp said. "Instead of (the number of volunteers) decreasing like we thought it would, it's been increasing. We've had to turn away more people than we would like."

 

Keith Wells, who coordinates the construction projects across the three-county Gulf Coast area, said the volunteer teams' skills vary from high to low. But they all arrive with enthusiasm and determination.

 

"A lot of times we get in skilled teams which have excellent woodworking skills," Wells said. "We also get some not as skilled, but they have a real good attitude and are prepared to do whatever we ask them to do. Skilled teams just do what they've got to do."

 

Sharp said completely rebuilding a home requires a mix of volunteers and professional subcontractors. Subcontractors are brought in to meet local building codes in areas such as plumbing and electricity.

 

Sharp estimates a rebuild takes from four to eight months. One thing that helps is to have one church "adopt" a rebuild project. "We've been lucky in getting some of the larger churches to partner with us to take on a complete rebuild. Madison United Methodist is going to do two more complete rebuilds," Sharp said. "It's phenomenal that one church in Mississippi can take that project."

 

Ric Stanfield and Tim Ross have coordinated the work teams for Madison UMC. Stanfield is on staff at the church.

 

"We have rebuilt three houses already, one from scratch, another was only about 10 percent complete and another maybe 30 percent complete," Stanfield said. "That has worked out real well with the commitment from our church members. We can better identify with a homeowner down there. We get a lot of support when we know who those folks are."

 

Stanfield said the volunteers have come from all areas of church life – young, old, men and women.

 

"We have had a number of women in particular who say they don't know anything about a hammer, but they can hold a 2x4 in place," he said. "People say they don't know about mudding, but by the end of the day they can do it.

 

"We have a number of people in the church in the construction business, and we count on their guidance and support as well. The youth have taken as many as 75 on a weekend retreat. Doctors, retirees, young folks, teachers, construction, sales people – the volunteers have come from across the board because they want to provide some relief to folks on the coast."

 

Madison UMC has found a formula for working that has helped keep the number of volunteers high. Instead of sending teams for weeks at a time, the church sends teams for a day at a time. They leave early on a Saturday morning, work all day and return home (about150 miles) that night.

 

"We leave at early thirty and get back at late thirty," Stanfield said. "It makes for a long day, but folks don't miss a day of church or a day of work.

 

"We have a lot of folks who've been on these Saturday rebuilds. Those are where we get the most support on. People feel like they can break away for one day. It's a long day, but a good day. Seeing the blessings we're able to share with our church is just a marvel. Those folks bless us as much as we try to bless them."

 

Wells noted that many teams and homeowners build a special bond during the rebuilding stage.

"One of the big things is how attached some become to the families," he said. "They are so impressed with the nature of some of the people we have here; how appreciative they are.

 

"A lot of the families being helped want to cook for the volunteers. Sometimes that's all they can do. Some do it every day. If they have a team at their home, they scrounge up money and feed them. They help us while we're helping them."

 

Madison UMC and St. Matthew's UMC, also in Madison, can attest to that bond. The churches worked together to rebuild a home for Mary Holt (left). When the project was completed, Holt, her sister and brother-in-law visited the churches to thank the congregations.

 

The new homes average about 1,200 square feet, Wells said. The cost runs between $50,000 and $55,000 each. Having volunteers doing much of the labor saves money. In addition, the conference has built three works camps – Camp Love at Nugent UMC in Gulfport, Camp Hope at Vancleave UMC and Camp Gulfside in Waveland – that provide housing space and storage space for materials. That means materials can be bought in bulk, saving even more funds.

 

Wells said funding is constantly in the back of the minds of the recovery team, but so far financial assistance has continued.

 

"One of our biggest concerns is that some of the big funders will stop," Wells said. "Anything that has to have a code inspection means hiring subcontractors. We're just about to the point where we'll always be contracting that out and will have to have funding.

 

"We're constantly hearing that groups are going to pull out, but so far we haven't seen that happen. We try be good stewards of money to make it last as long as possible."

 

Wells said as other recovery groups reach the end of their work on the coast, Methodist Recovery tries to take on those duties and consolidate work as much as possible, lowering overhead costs.

 

With recovery already past the 2½ year mark, one can't help but wonder how long people will continue to volunteer.

 

"We continually ask each other that question," Wells said. "We look at what's going on with floods in the Midwest and think it's going to cut into our teams, but it really doesn't seem to. Part of it is the fact that the worst natural disaster in U.S. history is still in their minds. There's enough in the national media that it's still in their minds. They remember the devastation. People who are mission-minded are a little more aware than others."

 

Madison UMC fits that description.

 

"We've always been a strong missions-oriented church, Stanfield said. "After Katrina hit, we shifted our focus from foreign missions to the immediate needs on the coast. The difference is that we can see in the pictures and in getting to know the families over the months we work there that they go from stress to smiles."

 

Sharp said the blessings go both ways. "People have come down and gotten more than they've given and come back," he said. "With the connectional system, I could see in the next two or three years that phenomenon continuing."