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Photo: Vaughn United Methodist Church in Griffin, Ga., stands open to the elements after a tornado stripped away the wall. A UMNS photo by the Rev. Mike Cash.

A UMNS Report
By Barbara Dunlap-Berg and Kathy Noble

Gracie “Bug” Briscoe huddled and prayed with her family while wind and rain pummeled the small community of Vaughn, Ga. The tornadoes bounced over their trailer home, and, on Thursday morning, they emerged unscathed only to see that the United Methodist church across the street was destroyed.

“Look, Mom,” 6-year-old Bug said, “Jesus protected our house, but he forgot to take care of his own house.”

Billy and Amanda Briscoe and their children were among the fortunate ones, unhurt with their trailer still intact, after at least 100 tornadoes ripped through much of the southern United States on April 27. By mid-afternoon April 28, the death toll was nearing 300.

United Methodists assessed damage, even as search-and-rescue efforts continued in the hardest-hit areas. The United Methodist Committee on Relief is working with bishops and disaster response personnel to determine the next steps to assist the affected communities.

Alabama-West Florida Conference

Across Alabama, at least 194 people were killed. The tornadoes claimed the lives of three members of Jackson Chapel United Methodist Church, Sawyerville.

Several church properties in the Alabama-West Florida Annual (regional) Conference also sustained damage.

"The state of Alabama, as well as the entire Southeast,” said Bishop Paul L. Leeland, “is deeply hurting as a result of yesterday’s horrific storms. In a catastrophic situation such as this, we are no longer divided by religious affiliation or economic status, rather we are one body of believers struggling to move forward. … We will be working with other conferences to help deploy assistance as we are called upon. Let us seek comfort in the Lord during this tragic time."

Holston Conference

In the Holston Conference, Mount Tabor United Methodist Church near Greeneville, Tenn., was the spiritual home to three of at least 33 Tennesseans who lost their lives in Wednesday’s storms. A fourth remained in intensive care and several others were hospitalized. The church lost part of its roof.

“Our hearts and prayers are with all the victims of the violent storms that have ripped apart so many of our Holston Conference communities and indeed across the southern states,” said Bishop James Swanson. “On behalf of the people of Holston Annual Conference, I share the sense of deep sorrow and sadness generated by this tragic storm.”

Camp Lookout, a Holston conference camp near Chattanooga, received significant damage, said the Rev. Anne Travis, director of connectional ministries. The storms destroyed one summer cabin, severely damaged one lodge and did minor damage to several other buildings.

In Cleveland, Tenn., the parsonage of Broadstreet United Methodist Church had major damage while Tate’s Chapel in Saltville, Va., lost its steeple.

Volunteers from the Virginia Conference, which appears to have had minimal damage, were preparing to assist storm survivors in the southern part of the state within the bounds of Holston, which encompasses 900-plus churches in Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia.

North Alabama Conference

In the North Alabama Annual Conference, no United Methodist deaths were reported at press time, but some members were injured and hospitalized, said Danette Clifton, director of communications.

Clifton said all eight districts in the conference reported property damage and loss. Many churches, parsonages and other buildings sustained severe structural damage, and several were destroyed. Flooding and downed trees and power lines hampered rescue and cleanup efforts.

The National Guard is patrolling the streets of Cullman, about 50 miles north of Birmingham, she said. “We won’t know the full extent of the situation for a day or two.”

Most of the storm-ravaged areas in Alabama are without power, and that is affecting some water systems. People are using their cars to charge their cell phones, so gas shortages are feared.

North Alabama Bishop William H. Willimon asked his congregations to consider receiving a special offering for those affected by the storms.

“I have been moved by the outpouring of grief, prayers and offers for help from Methodists all over the connection,” Willimon said. “I give thanks that our church has in place an organized, well-prepared response. UMCOR is sending us a large grant that can be used by our people to help their communities.”

At First United Methodist Church in the little town of Reform, the largest stained-glass window in the state was blown out.

According to preliminary reports, the storms destroyed five United Methodist churches in North Alabama, including:

    * Hackleburg in Florence
    * Lakeview in Tanner
    * Phil Campbell, a community in northwest Alabama
    * Red Hill (Upper Sand Mountain Parish) in Guntersville
    * Shelton Chapel in Tuscaloosa

The Rev. Matt Lacey, director of mission and advocacy, reported damage to Forest Lake, Berry and Holt United Methodist churches on the conference website.
Mount Tabor United Methodist Church in Greeneville, Tenn., was heavily damaged by a tornado. A UMNS web-only photo courtesy of the Holston Annual Conference.
Mount Tabor United Methodist Church in Greeneville, Tenn., was heavily damaged by a tornado.

Several properties of the United Methodist Children’s Home sustained damage. The status of the Tuscaloosa Group Home also was of great concern. The building sustained no structural damage, but initially had no power, phone service or running water or sewer service. The facility was at maximum capacity with 11 children. A large shopping center nearby was wiped out.

In Northport, a suburb of Tuscaloosa, St. Mark United Methodist Church served as a triage area for people after the winds damaged nearby DCH Regional Medical Center. Off-duty medical personnel pitched in to help some 400 people treated for trauma injuries. Forest Lake was also serving as a shelter.

“We are working hard to collect information from our churches,” Willimon said. Across the conference, United Methodist congregations were sheltering families from their communities.

“I'm receiving inquiries from Methodists all over; they will be sending teams to help once we have assessed the damage and are clear about what we need to minister in this time of crisis,” he said. “For all those whose communities and churches and parsonages were damaged, we continue to offer hearts and hands in prayer and service.”

North Georgia Conference

No United Methodists were among those whose lives were lost in the Griffin district of the North Georgia Conference.

“The forest is gone, a lot of homes and trailers are gone and the top of the church is gone,” said the Rev. Mike Cash, district superintendent, who walked three-quarters of a mile of tree-strewn road into Vaughn, which, along with the nearby community of Rio, was hard hit.

The parsonage of Faith United Methodist Church in the area and the home of the youth director for Monticello United Methodist Church also sustained damage.

In Dillard, Ga., the steeple blew partly off Mount City United Methodist Church.

Ringgold United Methodist Church, in one of the hardest-hit communities the state, functioned as a shelter until authorities removed anyone who was not a certified first responder from the area.

North George Bishop Mike Watson and the Rev. Mike Selleck, director of connectional ministries, called for offerings to assist the survivors and asked volunteers to wait until damage assessments are complete and areas are safe to enter.

“We will be mobilizing volunteers as soon as possible, but we need to let first things get done first," Selleck cautioned. “Please do not travel into heavily affected areas without an invitation. … Until then, please keep all the people affected by these storms across the southeast USA in your daily prayers.”

South Georgia, Mississippi Conferences

In the South Georgia Conference, a falling tree struck the administrative office of Vashti Ministries for Children and Youth in Bainbridge.

In Mississippi, the Rev. David Newton, United Methodist Volunteers in Mission coordinator, said, “Hundreds of lives and thousands of homes and businesses were lost during last night's tornadoes. This storm comes just over one week following significant damage to a number of Mississippi counties.

“At least 32 counties have been declared disaster areas. At least 50 persons are confirmed dead in Mississippi, and hundreds are injured. Scores lost homes, businesses, schools and churches.”
Prayer and hope

But amid the loss, life must go on.

At First United Methodist Church, Tuscaloosa, survivors gathered for an evening prayer service on April 28.

“We know in times of crisis, our awareness of our need for God is heightened,” the Rev. Kenneth A. Dunivant, the church’s pastor, said. “We will thank him for our safety … and ask for God’s strength in the days ahead as we deal with this new reality.”

While one couple in the congregation was injured, there were no deaths. “We’ve been getting phone calls from all across the country,” Dunivant added. “We appreciate that very much.”

And at Mount Tabor in Tennessee, Mennonite volunteers are working to ready the church, where 40 people usually worship, for Sunday services to be led by the pastor, the Rev. Joe Miller, and the Rev. Laura Shearer, a counselor for the Holton Conference.

“They will persevere,” Miller said of his church members. “They are strong-willed people and close to their faith. I believe these people will come out of it.”


Cash, not Clothes

What is the best way to help in the wake of disasters like the tornadoes and floods that seem to be in the headlines daily? Should you clean out your closet and hope your castoffs will be just what people need?

The answer, quite simply, is “no.”

According to the Outfit to Go website, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, piles of donated clothing were moldering along roadsides and parking lots in coastal Mississippi. After the Haiti earthquake, one U.S. town sent three trailer-truck loads of clothing to the island nation. Outfit to Go says it takes three days to sort and prepare the items in a tractor-trailer load of clothing – and usually at least half of the donations are unusable.

Money is the most useful.

Money allows the United Methodist Committee on Relief to respond in the most effective, timely manner to each unique disaster.

The Rev. Tom Hazelwood is UMCOR’s executive in charge of domestic disaster response in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Interviewed following the 2010 floods in Nashville, Tenn., he said, “We say over and over again, as people give money to UMCOR for disaster response or any of our projects, that 100 percent of that money goes to the projects. … We take the money that the people in the pew give and use it to its maximum effect.

“The pew sitter thinks that when they give a dollar or two, it really doesn’t matter much,” Hazelwood said, “but it does. It makes a huge difference.”

One item, besides cash, that does help is a cleaning bucket, a five-gallon plastic container filled with specific cleaning supplies. UMCOR delivers the buckets to survivors and volunteers at disaster sites.

Think before you give or go to a disaster site.

After a major disaster strikes, compassionate people everywhere want to help. The UMCOR website offers the following questions to guide responses that will help rather than do more harm.

    * Is the organization reputable? How much of your gift will go to disaster response and how much will be used for administrative costs?
    * If you are donating goods – has there been a direct request for these items? Sometimes it is more labor intensive and costly to process or ship donated items than it is to purchase them locally. Sending donated goods internationally becomes more complex.
    * Does a local organization know you are coming as a volunteer?  Often disaster sites are very dangerous in the initial days and weeks after it occurs. There is no structure to use volunteers or house them, and in many cases there are not enough resources like food or water for unexpected volunteers. Volunteer through a reputable agency.
You can support UMCOR’s emergency response efforts by giving to the Advance appeal related to a particular emergency or by giving to the general funds to ensure that resources are on hand when needed.

Give to 2011 Spring Storms UMCOR Advance #3021326 or donate through your local church. Write the check payable to your local church and put “UMCOR #3021326” in the memo area. One hundred percent of every gift through UMCOR goes to the designated ministry.

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