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Mississippi church hosts tent city for hurricane relief

 


Mississippi church hosts tent city for hurricane relief

Sept. 26, 2005       

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. (UMNS) — Thanks to Hurricane Katrina, St. Paul United Methodist Church has a tent city on its lawn and “God-Mart” spilling out into the halls and Sunday school rooms.

The spacious sanctuary is one big bedroom set up by the Red Cross to shelter the new homeless after Katrina sent a 37-foot wall of water over Highway 90, right in front of St. Paul.

Mark Gehres, a member of St. Paul, has become the “go-to man” for anything from garbage bags to blankets to fully equipped, air-conditioned tents. The church has about a half-dozen huge tents on its lawn for volunteers.

Pointing to the stacks of cleaning supplies, blankets and baby diapers, Gehres says someone told him the church looked like a Wal-Mart. “I told them this was God-Mart,” he says.

Behind the kitchen is what Gehres calls “God’s grocery store.” Boxes of food are sorted and ready to go to anyone who needs them.

Blue tents from China and green tents from Russia are just some of the donated items that have flooded into the church as part of the relief effort. “Someone donated a big freezer and refrigerator,” Gehres says, giving two examples of the many items received.

A United Methodist Men’s group from the denomination’s Sanford District in North Carolina is cooking 1,200 hot meals three times a day for people staying in the church as well as volunteers and community residents. The number of evacuees in the shelter fluctuates.

Mike Dunn and other members of the group are operating a mobile kitchen from St. Paul and will be rotating crews in and out of the church for six weeks.

“We have always wanted to do something like this, and this is the first chance we have had to do something of this magnitude,” Dunn says.

Gehres says Dunn’s crew is the key to the success of the volunteer work operating out of the church.

“We are able to feed anyone who comes in,” Gehres says.

Gehres is an Internet router and engineer who describes himself “as the last person on earth” to lead such a massive relief project.
 
“God put me here to do this,” he says. “This isn’t what I do; it is way out of the realm of my normal routine.”

In fact, he says, God put St. Paul here for just this purpose. “We have this large area beside our church for the tents and all this room inside for operating.”

Volunteers such as Mary Cruff, a United Methodist from Minnesota who plans to stay in Ocean Springs for at least three months, are manning the phones and organizing the work crews that are calling from churches across the country wanting to help.

The huge tents set up on the church grounds are comfortable, air-conditioned units that Gehres says can house a total of up to 200 people.

“I got a call from a women’s tennis team in Kentucky and a college football team from somewhere else wanting to come in and help. We are taking reservations now.”

Jerry Cotney brought a team of young people from Roanoke First United Methodist Church in North Alabama to help. This is Cotney’s second trip to St. Paul. His church has become a training center for volunteers. “We have trained 75 people so far,” he says.

“My house is fine, so I just came to the church to see what I could do to help,” Gehres says. “If you had told me four weeks ago I would be doing this, I would have been dumbfounded.”

St. Paul is ready to help for the long haul. “If you drive around here and look at all the damage, you will know this is something that won’t be fixed quickly,” he says.

Four weeks have passed since Hurricane Katrina’s Aug. 29 landfall on the Gulf Coast, and mounds of debris and destruction are evident everywhere.

Says Gehres: “This is going to be a long operation.”

Donations for the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s response to the hurricanes can be made online at www.methodistrelief.org and by phone at (800) 554-8583. Checks can be written to UMCOR, designated for “Hurricanes 2005 Global,” Advance No. 982523, or “Hurricane Rita appeal,” UMCOR Advance No. 901323, and left in church offering plates or mailed directly to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087-9068.

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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