UM Recovery sees change in leadership


By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

Some churches along the Mississippi Gulf Coast might think they’ve done their part in helping recover from Hurricane Katrina. 

Robert Sharp of Ocean Springs hopes to convince them otherwise. 

“Most local churches are getting out entirely of disaster relief. I want to pull them back into the disaster relief ministry so it doesn’t take away from ministry in the local church,” he said. 

Effective Jan. 15, Sharp will take over as director of the Mississippi United Methodist Katrina Relief. Sharp steps into the role being vacated by Ed Blakeslee of Gulfport, who decided to step down after about 15 months on the job. 

Moving into the top spot wasn’t automatic, to hear Sharp tell it. However, he said because of his commitment to God, he could not refuse. 

“I thought long and hard about doing it, but I made a commitment to God and the organization when I started (as regional coordinator) to give at least two years,” he said. “When Bill (McAlilly, Seashore District superintendent) and Bishop (Hope Morgan) Ward asked, I said yes because I had made that commitment.”

 For their part, Ward and McAlilly seem to think Sharp is the natural choice. 

“Robert has experienced mission in diverse places around the world and brings energy, wisdom and vision to this work,” Ward said. “We give thanks for his leadership in the eastern region of the Gulf Coast since Katrina. He knows the coast, he is well-connected and respected by the staff in place, and he has the commitment to Jesus Christ and the compassion for those impacted to lead us well into 2007 and beyond. 

“We are thankful to God for his willingness to serve as leader of the team of more than 60 employees funded by UMCOR at work on the Gulf Coast.” 

McAlilly pointed to Sharp’s military and Volunteers in Mission backgrounds as key assets. 

“Robert Sharp has literally lived his life in the eye of the storm,” McAlilly said. “He has had an extensive career in the military in Special Forces and spent a number of years flying as a hurricane watcher.   

“Robert has been on the front lines of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission and understands the role of UMVIM teams in recovery work. He has excellent organizational skills and a tremendous ability to build a team. Robert has worked alongside Ed and understands what is needed to continue the recovery efforts on the Gulf Coast. We are blessed to have someone of Robert’s ability to lead us in this season.” 

Sharp said his goal is to continue to make the local church a key player in the recovery. He and Blakeslee have worked to complement, not compete with, local churches’ efforts. At the same time, they’ve tried to expand individual church efforts across the affected region. 

“We don’t have the local churches really tied in long-term to disaster relief. I want to focus on that,” he said. 

However, Sharp said volunteers and funds are the two biggest issues the recovery faces. He said volunteers, who poured into the region after the storm hit in August 2005, are still needed and will be needed for months. “The money is always an issue. At some point, it will run out,” he said. 

All three leaders praised Blakeslee’s work, who stepped forward in November 2005 to lead the recovery effort. He was able to organize and direct an area still reeling from the devastation. 

“Ed stepped into the role of disaster recovery coordinator at a time when we were struggling to coordinate our recovery efforts,” McAlilly said. “Ed brought to our team an ability to strategize and organize our recovery efforts. He built a team that understands the needs of the people of the Gulf Coast region and what it takes to help them recover.  

“Ed is persistent and not easily discouraged from the goals of recovery. He has worked tirelessly to keep the ball rolling and see that the work of UMCOR is done in a way that utilizes all the resources available to us in an effective way.” 

Ward pointed out that Blakeslee refused payment for his work. 

“Ed has led in exceptional ways, offering his service gratis to the conference as an expression of his faith in Jesus Christ and his compassion for the thousands of families impacted on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi,” she said. “Impacted personally and feeling the direct impact of destruction on family members, Ed was the ideal leader for the first year of recovery. His wisdom and energy and vision have blessed us all.” 

“It is time for me to ‘rotate back into formation’ and allow someone else to lead our efforts in Mississippi,” said Blakeslee in November, when he announced he was stepping down. “Robert will do a wonderful job in his new role. He has excellent leadership skills as demonstrated in so many ways over the years in our church.”