Disaster response ministry: United Methodists serve on scenes long-term
By Holly McCray
At first, Northridge Lane appears to be a new subdivision. Homes are in various construction phases. Smooth concrete slabs identify some lots. Realty signs are posted.
But in fields behind those housing lots are large mounds of debris and broken trees. They are the tangled remnants of a shady lane of houses, on the edge of Piedmont, walloped by a tornado May 24, 2011.
Months after the storm, recovery is incomplete for residents of Piedmont and the wider affected area.
The Steve Ross family was among the first to rebuild and resume living on Northridge Lane. In February 2012, Steve looked forward to installing lawn grass and pointed out his new workshop, albeit smaller than the original. The house’s interior truly pleased his wife, but she clearly missed her former home. For the Rosses, the storm’s blow intensified earlier tragedies. The couple has buried two sons.
Amid such hurt, healing needs a lot of time.
For all those affected by the tornado, long ago the crowds offering help and the news media dispersed. But The United Methodist Church continues to extend support through long-term disaster response ministry.
Three Oklahoma UM pastors personify that ministry in the area impacted by the May 24 tornado outbreak. Sam Powers of Piedmont UMC, Felecia Hensley of Cashion, and Matt Franks of Calumet/Red Rock serve on CORE (Central Oklahoma Recovery Effort), a long-term relief committee.
CORE assists tornado victims with unmet needs. This collaboration—governmental, philanthropic, and faith-based groups—delivers resources case-by-case.
"It’s hard to believe we’ve been doing this for almost a year," said Rev. Franks in February. "There’s a reason I’m there; we made a commitment to see this through."
FEMA assessments startled Rev. Hensley. Those federal officials told CORE that, "with a tornado of this magnitude, we need to plan to not be recovered fully for five years," she recalled.
All three pastors do report progress.
The committee assisted about 15 affected families in Franks’ ministry area, and they "are back to the new normal, for the most part," he said.
"In my area, most weren’t connected to church. But someone in church knew them and said, ‘Did you think about ______?’ We are called by God to love our neighbor as ourselves. If they’re hurting, I’ll be there."
He confirms that by his actions. "We’re still here for you," he tells a Calumet resident whose spouse died a few months after their home blew away.
"That’s the call of the Gospel," Franks said. His witness also typifies disaster response ministry in the long term.
"We meet each need as it comes. We do our best to find a way," said Rev. Hensley. "It’s working really well to have all the needs and resources at the same table. We can make sure every dollar goes as far as it possibly can."
Americorps teams continue to serve. They have roofed houses and repaired pasture fences, among other projects. A member of Piedmont UMC directs those volunteers, said Rev. Powers.
The long-term relief committee’s work shows how distinct groups can unite for a common cause. Powers and Hensley fill key CORE leadership roles, Franks said, adding, "I can’t expound enough on what they have brought to the table. I’m their cheerleader."
Also continuing to participate in CORE are representatives of Chambers of Commerce, Catholic Charities, Oklahoma Emergency Management, Piedmont Service Center, and United Way, according to Hensley. Other groups carried out specific responsibilities early in the response.
Such cooperation is vital following disasters, explained Richard Norman.
His clergy assignment compels his service at many scenes of crisis, including resourcing CORE, because he coordinates Oklahoma United Methodists for disaster response. Through this Volunteers In Mission role, Rev. Norman represents the Church in the state-level VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters).
He also works to educate more United Methodists about best practices for disaster response ministry.
Emergency relief, assessments, debris removal, rebuilding—the recovery process moves through several stages. Specific groups are fully equipped to bring their divergent gifts to the process at different stages. Those gifts are most effective in coordination with one another, Norman emphasized.
He said United Methodists’ support is most valuable in the later stages of disaster response. Decades of service in construction missions by trained VIM volunteers prove United Methodists’ commitment to help and effectiveness in that area, he declared.
"I knew it was going to take time," Franks reflected. "I’d always been told that there’s a process. Actually seeing the long-term relief effort in motion, what the government does, to see all of us work together -- was good. Now I can say: Here’s what goes on."