4:00 P.M. EST May 4, 2011
Across the tornado-ravaged U.S. South, United Methodist pastors gathered their congregations on Sunday, May 1, to pray, to listen and to share shoulders to cry on.
Afterward, they continued to take their churches into the community, offering resources and helping hands to those struggling to recover from the impact.
The Rev. James “Todd” Chancey, a local pastor at Apison United Methodist Church in east Tennessee, is one of those leaders.
Chancey’s practical experience and business acumen gained through 20 years as a church business administrator come in handy as he helps his flock cope with the aftermath of tornadoes that whipped through numerous states on April 27. By May 4, the death toll had exceeded 350, with scores missing and injured, and property losses mounting.
While Chancey’s congregation had no loss of life or serious injuries, the tornadoes affected 22 of the church’s 35 active families. Some lost homes, cars and other property, while others coped with fallen trees.
“We’re relocating families who lost their homes, serving meals at the church, having prayer meetings and vigils, and providing generators and tarps,” he said.
So far, he has handed out $2,700 worth of gift cards donated by other United Methodist churches, friends and families.
“We’re setting up work teams from other churches—both nearby and in other states,” he added. The first teams will arrive May 7 to help with tree and brush removal.
In Glade Spring, Va., the Rev. Paul Griffith opted for a May 1 prayer service at Byars-Cobbs United Methodist Church instead of traditional worship.
Several parishioners lost friends or family members or were still cleaning up from storm damage and the church had no electricity, so a prayer service seemed better suited to the dark sanctuary, he explained. Thirty people showed up to worship.
“Even if we come today with heavy hearts,” Griffith told them, “we come to celebrate family and community … This is a time that God can use to draw us together as a community and to make a difference.”
He reminded the congregation, “You’re the only Bible that some people will ever read. … We have an opportunity, as the church, as a connectional body, to meet the needs of the community. We are blessed, are we not? … We have a mission of hope. We have a mission of love. We have a mission of grace.”
That same day, the Rev. John H. Bonner, Demopolis District superintendent for the Alabama-West Florida Annual (regional) Conference, worshipped at Jackson Chapel United Methodist Church in Sawyerville.
“Despite the community losses and some personal losses among church members,” he said, “it was a joyful, thankful service. They spent time telling their stories, confessing their fears, crying tears and thanking God that it was no worse than it was. One man was … on the scene when an infant who died was found. These are tough realities."
In Mississippi, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward wrote about visiting a hard-hit area April 29 with her husband. “As Mike and I stood with (the Rev.) Charles Coggins by the devastation that was Smithville United Methodist Church,” she said, “we were greeted by a family from St. Paul, Ocean Springs.”
"I was baptized and married here," a woman told them. "St. Paul is ready to help in any way we can. We know how it is. ..."
Ward continued: “In God's great economy, nothing is lost: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We are connected in this moment as we grieve and comfort, as we clean up and trust God for the future.”
Across the South, congregations whose buildings escaped the tornadoes are opening their doors to those who were less fortunate. Some offer emergency shelter for tornado evacuees. Others serve as drop-off locations for donations of health kits, cleaning buckets and specific items such as diapers and tarps.
The Rev. Wilson Kendrick, Demopolis (Ala.) District disaster-response coordinator, said two men from Texas loaded up their truck at 5 a.m. May 1 and started driving. They arrived in the Demopolis District and went to work immediately.
The University of West Alabama in Livingston is housing relief workers in that area, as well as offering their football team to assist. The Wesley Foundation at the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa) is hosting work teams.
“We can handle 30 to 40 people a day,” said the Rev. Creighton Alexander, campus pastor, “but please bring your own cots or air mattresses. We can provide food for your teams, but please bring chain saws and any other equipment you think would be helpful.” Area United Methodist churches are coordinating volunteers.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief has been responding to the tornadoes since Day 1.
The denomination’s humanitarian-aid agency underscored its “absolute commitment” to communities affected by this year’s historic spring storm season, even though the organization’s U.S. Disaster Response funds are extraordinarily tight.
The Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey, UMCOR’s top executive, appealed to United Methodists to help replenish the funds and ensure the agency’s ability to continue to respond to the spring storms emergency. Donations can be made here.
“I have no doubt that the people of The United Methodist Church will respond just as they always have, whether it is to an earthquake in Haiti or Japan, a hurricane in the Gulf, or widespread tornadoes and storms such as these,” she said. “People always respond to great need.”
*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications. Also contributing to this story were Lane Gardner Camp, Memphis Conference; Mary Catherine Phillips, Alabama-West Florida Conference; and Annette Spence, Holston Conference.
News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., 615-742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.