The Rev. Tom Hazelwood has served as UMCOR's US Disaster Response executive for 15 years.
Mary Hughes Gaudreau
By Susan Kim*
April 9, 2013—Ask Tom Hazelwood to tell you about a pastoral visit he made while wearing his best dark suit—and the extremely affectionate, unavoidable, white fluffy cat from...well, heaven.
Or ask him to tell you how he felt eating Carolina barbecue hours after watching dead pigs floating in the floodwaters spawned by Hurricane Floyd.
After 15 years of disaster response that included the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and too many tornadoes to count, you'd think Hazelwood would run out of reasons to laugh. Not so.
Those who know him often mention his sense of humor in the same breath with his name. He is leaving his post as assistant general secretary for US Disaster Response of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) to serve as director of Connectional Ministries for the church’s Memphis Annual (regional) Conference.
Hazelwood—who during some months, was on the road more than he was home—had serious responsibilities, but he always managed to see humor in a situation. He often connected with others by making them laugh, a gift that was appreciated by disaster responders and survivors alike.
But his storytelling ventures into serious territory as well: Ask him to tell you about the time he fell into a grain cart as a young boy in rural Arkansas. When he describes his feeling of panic that nobody would come, and his profound sense of loneliness, you begin to get an idea of the powerful empathy he has for disaster survivors who often feel “stuck” and lonely.
One of Hazelwood's favorite images is from a Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson. “It depicts Earl's Wrecking Yard and Croissants,” said Hazelwood. “Somehow that is an image I have of myself, always amid the chaos and the messes, everything crazy, yet I love poetry and sitting with a book.”
He also loves a good story. His own storytelling ability, as well as his tendency to see the lighter side of any situation was passed down from his parents as he grew up in Arkansas. “My father had a very dry sense of humor, and Mama loved to tell funny stories.”
Hazelwood's staff said the Far Side image of Hazelwood fits the bill. “He can be serious and no-nonsense when it's necessary,” said Christy Smith, an UMCOR consultant who has worked for Hazelwood for nearly a decade, “but he is always willing to make a joke out of a situation, not out of a person.”
Hazelwood's curious mixture of poignant storytelling and the ability to laugh at himself helped him on the job immeasurably. “He knew how to build relationships well,” said Smith. “What Tom can do is come into a room and remove tensions that may have preexisted in the undercurrents of people's relationships.”
Whether telling funny stories or reciting a poem, he has had the courage to be himself in a disaster-response world that is often rife with bureaucracy and self-restraint, and Smith believes that takes tremendous courage: “He wasn't afraid to strip off the armor of self-protection, and say, 'Here I am. Flawed—just like you. Good and bad—just like you.”
UMCOR’s US Disaster Response work will continue to help annual conferences, local churches, and partner organizations prepare for and respond to emergencies in the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Learn more here.
*Susan Kim is a journalist and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org.