Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

Connecting Neighbors for Disaster Response

By Catherine G. Earl*

As a program of The United Methodist Church, the US Disaster Response unit of UMCOR is mandated by the Book of Discipline to provide support to annual conferences as partners in disaster ministry. UMCOR primarily does this by offering training, expertise, relief supplies, and funding. Conferences, in turn, channel that support to districts and churches.  “Connecting Neighbors: A Church Readiness Curriculum,” UMCOR, March 2016

In June 2016, parts of West Virginia accumulated nine inches of rain in a matter of hours, causing the worst flooding the state has seen in 30 years. The floods claimed 23 lives and damaged or destroyed thousands of homes. In the midst of the storm, Emmanuel United Methodist Church, in White Sulphur Springs, was spared severe flooding damage. It became a major center for distribution of relief items.

New Image Flooding NWO.jpgThe Revs. Susan Ferguson (left) and Robert Johnson (right) visit with Trent Noel while Noel takes a break from gutting flood-damaged drywall at his mother’s home in Lafayette, Louisiana. Ferguson is pastor at Asbury United Methodist Church and Johnson is pastor of Louisiana Avenue United Methodist Church, both in Lafayette. PHOTO: MIKE DUBOSE/UMNS 

“We’ve got buckets; we’ve got water; we’ve got food; we’ve got paper towels,” the Rev. Shari Stilgenbauer, Emmanuel’s pastor, told United Methodist News Service reporter, Sam Hodges. “We’ve even got pet food and kitty litter.”

Rev. Stilgenbauer confirmed that home damage was widespread in her flooded community. “It’s devastating, and that’s putting it mildly. We have a couple of little communities…things are just gone. We have a trailer park that’s basically wiped out.”

Fortunately, the West Virginia Conference was well prepared to deal with this emergency. West Virginia’s conference disaster response coordinator, the Rev. Dan Lowther, had received a capacity-building grant from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) just six weeks before the storm happened, so that he could train all the district disaster response coordinators. Those district coordinators were mobilized after the storm. In addition, the West Virginia Council of Churches, an ecumenical group that responds to disasters, identified five staging areas across the state where United Methodist clergy were deployed to provide pastoral support for people affected by the flood and for first responders. 

Connected in Response 

Following a disaster in the United States, UMCOR’s initial response is to support the people of The United Methodist Church as they act to address human suffering. UMCOR personnel reach out to the leadership of a conference to gain an understanding of how the community has been affected, what congregations are doing to respond to the needs of their neighbors, and how UMCOR can support that response.

Missouri_tornadoes_072.jpgA Bible pulled from the wreckage of St. James United Methodist Church in Joplin, Missouri, dries in the sun. PHOTO: MIKE DUBOSE/UMNS

The United Methodist connectional system is rich with resources, such as UMCOR’s robust relief supply network and the ability to facilitate communications and coordinate resources between national voluntary agencies and governmental partners.
When disasters strike, UMCOR personnel reach out to offer conference leaders assistance with developing relief and recovery ministries. UMCOR financial grants, available because of the generosity of United Methodists and benefactors who value UMCOR’s work, allow a disaster-impacted conference to develop creative and appropriate responses to address urgent humanitarian needs and launch recovery ministries. A basic, foundational principle in all of UMCOR’s work is that healing takes place in the context of community and therefore the community owns its own recovery.

Wind and Water 2016

UMCOR supports the UMC in its readiness for and response to many types of disasters, those with a natural cause and those that may have been caused by human error. When trouble comes to God’s people, we must respond with all the compassion and wisdom we can muster, and UMCOR often finds that direction from within those local churches and communities affected, as well as from the dedicated conference disaster response coordinators who train and study, who deploy and learn, and who share their resources and training in the affected areas.

In 2016, flood and wind disasters resulted in the most damage and hardship in the United States. UMCOR assisted with the Sabine River Basin flood in East Texas and Louisiana in March, the Houston flood in April, West Virginia flash and river flooding in June, Baton Rouge area floods in August, and Hurricane Matthew in October, to name a few of the US responses last year. 

Nearly $5 million was disbursed by UMCOR in 2016 for US disaster response, which addressed relief and recovery needs of those most in need of the resources and human services supported by the generosity of UMCOR’s donors. UMCOR’s supporters understand and highly value that 100 percent of their donation supports the work where it is most needed. Of course, UMCOR grants, combined with the assets and resources of the conference, help leverage the significant contributions of the volunteers, without whom we could not extend the quality and quantity of our work in the United States as needed. 

UMCOR’s US Disaster Response unit, headquartered in Global Ministries’ new offices in Atlanta, Georgia, is supported by consultants with broad experience and depth of expertise. Because of UMCOR’s belief that those who are impacted understand their needs best, we depend on UMCOR-trained disaster coordinators who manage the response and who know how to engage the resources of The United Methodist Church. Our conversation with those coordinators is on-going—before, during, and well after disasters break homes and hearts.

It is the people of the church—the volunteers, leaders, and others—who embody “UMCOR” and who earn the trust of survivors, donors, and partners.

Connecting Neighbors

“Connecting Neighbors” is UMCOR’s recently-updated program that gives congregations the tools and information they need to guide the development of their disaster-response ministries. Congregations that invest their time in “Connecting Neighbors” training are better prepared for what emergencies may come, able to draw on local resources more quickly in the wake of a disaster and more confident that United Methodists will be a resource for community recovery.

2017-UMCOR-MS-tornadoresp-Earl_edited-1.jpgCatherine Earl (foreground) surveys damage caused by a tornado that touched down in Mississippi in January 2017. Earl, the director of Disaster Response and US Partner Relations for UMCOR, made the rounds with Bishop Earl Swanson of the conference (far right) and the Rev. Kenny McGill, Conference Disaster Response Coordinator. PHOTO: TAMICA SMITH-JEUITT

Though UMCOR has training resources for all disaster response functions, it has developed a niche for case management within the national disaster response community and is often the “go-to” organization for disaster case management training. Through this case management recovery partnership with survivors, lives can be changed and families made more resilient to face whatever personal disasters they experience in the future. UMCOR’s case management trainers abide by an underlying philosophy of care that moves disaster survivors beyond file folders and into a holistic plan for recovery that addresses physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.

From case management training, early response team training, and “Connecting Neighbors,” to workshops for bishops and cabinet members, UMCOR has something to teach people about disaster response. In 2016, UMCOR US Disaster Response offered 83 trainings, equipping 1,553 dedicated people to respond in the most meaningful and helpful ways. Its training programs have made disaster response more efficient, increased ecumenical participation, and strengthened public-private partnerships. All this ultimately helps disaster survivors recover over the months and years it takes to regain a sense of normalcy. All this makes disaster response a way to live out the mission of The United Methodist Church to transform the world.

*Catherine G. Earl is director of Disaster Response and US Partner Relations for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). With thanks to Sam Hodges and Linda Bloom of UMNS and the Rev. Deborah Coble of the West Virginia Conference for reporting on West Virginia flood recovery.

Click here to see more information on Relief Kits: A Network of Hope

Copyright New World Outlook magazine, Spring 2017 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.