Californians relish chance to aid coast


By Larry R. Hygh Jr.
Special to the Advocate

Work teams from across the California-Pacific Conference have traveled to Mississippi to bring hope to people still suffering from the destruction left by Hurricane Katrina. 

As a conference-wide gift to Mississippi native Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, members of the 2006 California-Pacific Annual Conference Session decided to send work teams for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts taking place on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Beginning the week of April 9 and continuing through the first week in May, teams representing each of the eight districts traveled to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Each week, volunteers representing two of the eight districts in the California-Pacific Conference worked to build and repair homes left damaged and destroyed by the hurricane.   

The Rev. Chris Cumbest, who is organizing church recovery on the coast, said that by May 5, some 188 Cal-Pac volunteers will have given a week of their time in service to Christ in Mississippi.  

“The lay leader of the Cal-Pac Conference, Ken Ellis, has been in Waveland since April 5 and has done an incredible job coordinating their efforts along with the crew at Camp Gulfside,” Cumbest said.

“My family joined me at their Annual Conference last year and helped in offering the invitation to come. What a blessing it has been for us to welcome them, and to thank them for coming to Mississippi! 

“Each week Ken tells me of the persons and teams who are making plans to return because of their time here. There continue to be volunteers who come, many who are returning to Mississippi for the second, third, fourth or more times and for that we remain overwhelmed and incredibly grateful.”

Teams from the Santa Barbara and Santa Ana districts were the first to go to work. “It was a very inspirational and uplifting experience,” said Betty Kobata from West Valley United Methodist Church in Chatsworth, Calif.

Kobata described the devastation she witnessed as acres and acres of leveled land, trees and rubble. “The hospitality of these people who have lost so much, their attitude was very inspiring for all the people who have come through to do the work on their homes,” she said. “We give pause to what we are blessed with when we come home…it helps to reprioritize things in your own life.”

Kobata reported that her work team installed insulation and wall board and finished two bedrooms and the hallway of a home during the week. The homeowner has invited the team back to see the finished product when the work is complete. “It’s our calling to help those in need, and Cal-Pac has responded in a very generous way,” she said. “It’s nice to see that we are making a difference some place for people in such dire need.”

Cathy Duran, from Anaheim (Calif.) UMC, said, “Everywhere we went to work and shop or eat, people would see our shirts and say, ‘Thank you. God bless.’”

Duran describes seeing the work that is still to be completed as overwhelming. “There is so much work still to be done…our faith is strengthened by being part of an effort that supports real people in their recovery.”

The Rev. Melissa Rusler, pastor of Spurgeon Memorial UMC in Santa Ana, Calif., said she did not know what to expect before arriving. “My greatest hope was to help in some way and just to be willing to work doing whatever needed to be done by whoever needed it to be done,” said Rusler. “When I arrived and began hearing stories of what Katrina was like, and how folks talked about before Katrina and after Katrina, the drastic changes…these are real lives versus what we see on the news. The hope that the people brought to us is what surprised me most for the week,” said Rusler, who already has planned to return again next year.

Rebecca Lirette Dowd from North Oxnard (Calif.) UMC took six unpaid days from work for the rebuilding efforts. “My biggest concern was whether or not I would have the skills to be useful,” she said. “It was one of the most worthwhile things I have done with my time.” She added, “I learned that there’s a lot of hopelessness in the area, but one of the things we bring is that hope that they can’t come up with on their own.” 

La Habra (Calif.) UMC sent a team of 14 to D’Iberville and Biloxi. This team included two high school students and two teachers on spring break and ranged in age from 14 to 71. 

Melynda Kreeger, La Habra’s director of Christian Education and Family Life Ministries, said, “Even with airfare factored in it was one of the least expensive mission trips we have ever taken.”

The church is already planning to go back. “Once you go the first time, you will be eager to go back. Words and pictures cannot adequately express what we experienced in the Gulf! It truly was life-changing!”

Hygh is director of communications for the California-Pacific Annual Conference and former director of communications in the Mississippi Conference. This article first appeared in Circuit West and is used with permission.