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Church leaders witness United Methodist relief work


Church leaders witness United Methodist relief work

Sept. 13, 2005

A UMNS Report
By Ciona Rouse*

Three United Methodist agency executives were moved as they saw firsthand the effects of Hurricane Katrina on parts of Louisiana and Mississippi.

“The churches of Louisiana and Mississippi have carried out remarkable humanitarian service under the most difficult conditions imaginable,” said the Rev. Larry Hollon, top staff executive of United Methodist Communications. “Many volunteers have themselves lost their homes and possessions, yet they are in the front line helping others who have been evacuated from New Orleans and the gulf shore.”

Hollon, the Rev. Randy Day, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, and the Rev. Paul Dirdak, executive director of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, toured the Gulf Coast area Sept. 7-11. They met with the bishops of Louisiana and Mississippi, visited shelters and viewed the damage wreaked by Hurricane Katrina and resulting floods on area churches.

Working with UMCOR staff, the conferences devised plans for responding to the disaster that left hundreds of thousands displaced and killed an unknown number of people. Day, Hollon and Dirdak observed the conferences’ work and asked about assistance the denomination could provide.

Dirdak assured the conferences that UMCOR would be around to assist with long-term needs. UMCOR is one of the few non-governmental relief agencies that has experience with displaced people in international situations, he said.

Day said he was pleased to see conference leaders working side by side with UMCOR, a unit of the Board of Global Ministries. “In addition to UMCOR, all of the units of the Board of Global Ministries will work with our local churches and institutions as they rebuild their lives and communities across these three states,” he said.

The church leaders visited shelters run by United Methodist congregations, as well as churches hit hard by the hurricane. They met people such as Isidore Wolf at the Galloway United Methodist Church shelter in Jackson, Miss. The church hosted a wedding for Wolf and his wife, Rya, two evacuees who grew up in New Orleans.

The couple had planned to marry in December and had bought a wedding gown and a ring and begun payment on a banquet hall. All was lost in the storm. They asked the church to help them get married and expected the Rev. Ross Olivier to arrange a small ceremony for them to say their vows.

“They gave us a whole wedding,” Wolf said. “They made us feel like we had family here.”

Hollon was impressed with the “competence and comprehensiveness of the services offered by local congregations” for displaced people. The churches offered feeding stations, medical and social services, and pastoral care, he noted. Some churches helped find apartments and jobs for displaced families, bought uniforms for students enrolled in school and even provided Internet access to help people search for lost family members.

“While one cannot overstate the depth and breadth of loss, what displaced people have found is not abandonment as many feared, but community,” Hollon said.

The agency executives heard stories from two retired Louisiana pastors, the Rev. Carol Cotton Winn and the Rev. John Winn, who could not locate their son who lived in New Orleans.

They met Kevin Porter, a lifetime member of Hartzell-Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Slidell, La., as he first surveyed the flood damage in the church his grandfather built.

“I can’t believe this. This hurts,” said Porter, looking at the scattered, muddy remains of the sanctuary that was once under more than five feet of water.

The group also visited the grounds of the denomination’s historic Gulfside Assembly in Waveland, Miss. The assembly, like much of Waveland, was wiped away by the storm.

“Not only were New Orleans, neighboring towns and the towns of Mississippi heart-wrenching to observe, (but) it was also particularly painful to walk through the historic grounds of Gulfside Assembly and not see one building standing,” Day said.

Day said that he was “very hopeful and confident that we, as a whole church, will rebuild Gulfside Assembly.”

He reflected on the scenes and faces of poverty the media has shown since Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi on Aug. 29.

“I have no doubt that Katrina was the worst natural disaster in the United States in a century, yet this devastating hurricane did not cause poverty in New Orleans and areas of Mississippi, which we observed,” Day said.

“Rather, Katrina attracted cameras and intense coverage of the other America — the one about which rich America has been in denial for decades.

“As I’ve said repeatedly in the past three years, poverty kills. It will continue to kill Katrina victims and millions of others who were nowhere near the storm. I believe the United Methodist Church must make stronger efforts than ever to eliminate racism and all of its evils.”

The Louisiana Conference established a storm center to match the offerings of help it has received with requests for help from affected areas. The storm center, housed at the conference center in Baton Rouge, can be reached toll free at (888) 239-5286, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Long-term recovery will include rebuilding, but neither the Louisiana nor Mississippi conferences have organized volunteer-in-mission groups for this stage of response yet.

The Rev. Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR director of U.S. disaster response, cited five ways people can help: give monetary donations to UMCOR, give appropriate physical donations such as flood buckets or school kits, pray for all affected people and relief workers, invite corporations to contribute to UMCOR, and contact Volunteer-in-Missions and join or form a work team.

Donations to support the United Methodist response to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy can be made online at and by phone at (800) 554-8583. Checks can be written to UMCOR, designated for “Hurricanes 2005 Global,” Advance No. 982523, and left in church offering plates or mailed directly to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087-9068.

*Rouse is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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