Disaster Response Ministry: Field reports
Driving through Tushka in the first days after the April 14, 2011, tornado reminded me of an ant hill that someone poked with a stick. People scurried everywhere. It was easy to sense just how much people wanted to help. The genuine concern and compassion were overwhelming.
Then weeks went by and other tragedies drew attention elsewhere. But Tushka was still recovering in southeastern Oklahoma.
I cannot express gratitude enough for the caring people who dealt with the immediate disaster response. Our real challenge, however, comes in the rebuilding process.
Those initial crowds (and cameras) had left by the time those of us in the Tushka area had (1) assessed long-term needs; (2) worked through the FEMA, Small Business Administration, and insurance processes; and (3) secured funds and training to get to work rebuilding.
This rebuilding stage is when Volunteers In Mission teams are most helpful. The labor being provided by them in Tushka’s rebuilding process has been key to our recovery.
United Methodists, we do not have to be first to arrive at the scene of a disaster. We need to be willing to stick with supporting those affected in the long haul. During the rebuilding phase, survivors can lose sight of blessings and shift their focus to the tragedy of material loss. Processes can become tedious; the end is not always in sight. Frustrations and emotions surface.
VIM teams come in not merely to clean up, but to rebuild. Our VIM teams remind people who think they have been forgotten that somebody still cares. Teams do work that gives survivors hope; there is a finish line.
It is February 2012 in Tushka, and we are roughly two-thirds of the way through the recovery process. Due to good stewardship by our community’s long-term relief committee, which includes United Methodist leaders, and to volunteer labor, designated relief funds are not yet depleted.
If we do not receive volunteer help, however, the money will not last. We have had excellent contractors working with us, but without volunteer labor there will be people we cannot help. We probably can use volunteer help into early summer.
We are helping a large percentage of survivors, yet that percentage is not simply a number. These are neighbors, friends, parents, and children. These are laborers and caregivers and vital members of our community. Most of all, these are children of God.
As we enter storm season, we pray disasters don’t happen elsewhere. But we have confidence that, if they do, United Methodists will be there for the long haul, helping to rebuild lives.
(Ramey is pastor of Atoka and Tushka-New Zion United Methodist Churches.)
Lone Grove, 2009
In Lone Grove, near Ardmore, probably 80 percent of the people touched by a deadly tornado in 2009 lived in mobile homes that were rented, with no insurance carried by the property owners or renters.
They were very low-income, most not even required to file tax returns, and thus the ability of systems to help them was limited. Upon finding out about procedures to qualify for assistance from FEMA and the Small Business Administration, a big part of them simply relocated to other towns or moved in with relatives and friends.
Yet my church members and I will never forget the presence of The United Methodist Church, the Baptist Church, the Salvation Army, and others.
It was a season in my church of learning servanthood. Our church property was not damaged, nor was any member’s home, although some had damaged barns. The Oklahoma Conference provided financial help, and our members gave their time and talents.
I say this with the greatest conviction: Our church was led and represented by the most professional group of people: the Conference Disaster Response coordinator and team. We became educated and prepared.
(Riley pastors at Lone Grove UMC.)
Grove and Delaware County, 2011
The tornado outbreak in May 2011 was difficult on several levels for Grove United Methodists. Grove is only 45 miles from Joplin, Mo., where many of our people have relatives and friends, shop, and receive health care services. Secondly, 10 tornadoes right in our county brought significant destruction and loss. We have responded in both areas.
We have both served in Joplin and provided assistance to those affected within our church and community. For seven months, I’ve served on the Delaware County Disaster Response Committee, whose work is to address unmet needs resulting from the tornadoes and to begin developing a preparedness plan for any future disaster.
I have learned much regarding the cooperation and inner workings of various agencies—government on every level, faith-based groups, and others. I’ve learned the complexity and difficulty in carrying out the work.
It helps me to remain focused on why we began the effort and on the very purpose of the mission, which in ministry always centers on people. Their losses, pain, and suffering matter because people matter to God.
In disaster response, after focusing on what quickly can be done, what remains is to discern together how, with the resources at your disposal, to care for those more severely affected. And that takes time, lots of time. Patience is vital, in the hope that what is done in the name of Christ, however small or large, is important and worthy of the effort.
(Hamill is pastor at First UMC, Grove.)