United Methodists in the Face of Disaster: My Personal Testimony

I have wept and prayed on behalf of the Houston region as it has suffered through the ravages of Hurricane Harvey. I pray today as south Louisiana prepares for another episode of flooding due to the combination of rising Gulf of Mexico water levels and heavy rains.  I am donating to United Methodist Committee on Relief through my local church, Glenn Memorial UMC. I encourage us all to continue weeping, praying, and giving in support of these who are suffering so badly.

One of the ironies of the timing of Hurricane Harvey is that it arrived the same week as the 25th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew to south Dade County, Florida (August 23, 1991.)  At the time, I was privileged to serve as the urban ministries director for the Miami District, which included both Dade and Monroe counties (from south of Ft. Lauderdale to Key West). Because of this position I was assigned to be the coordinator of the Hurricane Andrew United Methodist disaster response.  A job that in hindsight was a turning point for my life and ministry.

It took me two short years to burn out, but the work continued for at least another five, led by one of the most talented women I have ever known, a former US2 (now called “young adult mission intern”) Lynette Fields, who continues to lead the Church in many amazing ways in the Florida Conference.

Then one year after my appointment as the Director of Connectional Ministries for the conference in 2003, the Florida Conference experienced the crisscrossing of four hurricanes through primarily the central part of our area within a period of three months.

Those of us who have had this experience of either or both living through a disaster and leading the recovery process in conjunction with the incredible support of United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) are immediately keyed in – emotionally and spiritually – to the struggles of other areas. No matter how much healing work one has done, you always remember. However, just because we have been through one or even several disasters, does not make us an authority on all disasters.

Why am I an advocate for support to UMCOR?

Hurricanes Hugo (South Carolina, 1989) and Andrew (South Florida, 1992) were major teaching moments for UMCOR. Prior to these two storms there was no such thing as computerized support for long-term recovery work in disaster. And, if my memory serves me correctly, they were both the largest disasters in scope up until that time. They had to learn quickly about the diversity of our communities, worked with us to develop systems, and engaged in a process of improvement throughout the seven years of recovery in our area. One of the admirable characteristics about UMCOR is that they are always learning from one disaster to the next, how to improve our Church’s response in an affected area.

UMCOR insists that the local region effected by disaster “own” their disaster. They do not sweep in and take over relief and recovery efforts. While they do not “take over” disasters, they are on the ground as soon as they are invited by the conference to come. They assist the local leaders, from the bishop to the local churches, with shaping a response that will remain in a region long after other organizations that sweep in, capture media headlines, and often add insult to injury and damage, are long gone.

UMCOR helps rebuild communities. When United Methodists are involved in relief through UMCOR, we do not discriminate against non-Christians, undocumented persons, persons of color. All are deserving of support. The recovery programs seek to assist those with the least amount of resources – many who will lose their jobs because of the disaster, who have lost their homes and had no insurance, persons who will have to relocate – based on the combination of federal and state aid for which they may or may not be eligible. They work to maximize the best combination of resources available to people in great need.

Trained UMCOR resource leaders help local churches and leaders in disaster areas understand the stresses they are taking on themselves as they play a critical spiritual role in helping their communities rebuild.  The dual roles of survivor and community leader as relief and recovery proceed are paradoxical and tough to hold together. Leaders, lay and clergy alike, have to figure out how to care for themselves and their families.

You can trust the UMCOR policy that when you donate to a specific disaster, 100% of your donation will go to that region. Some will be used for immediate relief, but much will be used for the long-term recovery work of helping people rebuild their lives. Funds donated to the Hurricane Andrew disaster helped sustain that work for seven years, until it was completed. United Methodist recovery work was one of the very last organizations to leave the south Dade region.

What can the Houston region anticipate?

Disasters have been studied and analyzed, and responses to them have been professionalized over the past thirty years.

There are five stages to disaster response: The first is mitigation (attempts to prevent serious damage, death, and harm.) The second is preparation (all that nagging we get about whether or not we have our own emergency preparedness kits at home, local agency work and practice, evacuation procedures in anticipation of the disaster, and conference disaster preparedness training.) Then comes the disaster. Following the disaster there is the immediate stage of rescue – Houston is still in that stage in the flooded regions. Then, overlapping to some degree is the stage of relief – the distribution of ice, water, food, provision of safety, getting utilities back up and running, getting people back in homes or relocated to safe housing. And then comes recovery.

There are two extremely frustrating things about the recovery stage. First, it takes a long time. With Hurricane Andrew, rescue took seven days, relief took over a month, and the recovery took seven years. And second, while folks think of recovery as a return to what they thought of as “normal” prior to the disaster, it is really movement toward a “new normal.” After a family has “lost everything,” they don’t return to the old normal – ever. Another irony that is impossible to imagine given the images we see of disasters, is that often, that new normal can be better than the old. But that is something that must be discovered in the process of recovery; it is not what one preaches this coming Sunday or even in a month or two.

United Methodists in south Dade county, including several thousand volunteers from other parts of the country, left the disaster region better than it had been before Hurricane Andrew hit in terms of both rebuilt, structurally sound houses and rebuilt, recreated, and newly empowered communities of faith, such as the Branches ministry in Florida City (branchesfl.org/) that continues to be led by Kim King Torres, who was hired to staff a part of the disaster recovery ministry, and never left. Branches has become a regular site for young adult mission interns from the General Board of Global Ministries and has been a huge influence on the lives of children in Florida City who were even born when Andrew destroyed the community that was there.

So, I end with the reminder for us all about the Chinese word for “crisis” that combines the two symbols for “danger” and “opportunity.” This is not a cliché in disaster.

And I also end with this word of faith and its relationship to hope. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  This is not a cliché either, my friends. On September 1, 1992, I wasn’t feeling very faithful or hopeful. I was totally overwhelmed by and grieving for the scope of the destruction, the role for which I had been tapped, and the day to day struggle to still work without power to my home, with a freezer full of rotten food, and with a child whose school had yet to reopen.

But without the faith of the extended United Methodist connection that sustained us in those early days through UMCOR and the long-term ministry it helped us create, the UMC connection played a huge role in the rebuilding of south Dade County and that is lived out in incredibly positive ways to this day.

That is a word of assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things yet to be seen, in the face of yet another disaster.

If you want to know how UMCOR works, this is a great primer.

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