Volunteers in Petal, Mississippi, have been reaching out to diverse communities in the wake of a January tornado.
Courtesy Asbury UMC
By Susan Kim*
March 12, 2013—A few weeks ago, when Thom Shores witnessed the demolition of the oldest African-American church in the town of Adairsville, Georgia, the seasoned disaster responder took time to reflect on what moments like this mean for a community.
“The church was 106 years old,” said Shores, disaster response coordinator for the North Georgia Conference. “It was so badly damaged by a tornado that it had to be torn down.”
The tornado that hit Adairsville, in north Georgia, was part of a line of storms that ripped through the region in late January.
The plight of the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church has caught the heart of the ecumenical community, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has joined with other faith-based organizations to help support the church's members—many of whom have damaged homes—as they begin their long-term recovery.
As Shores visited with the church's deacon, he learned that the church's oldest member was 103. Shores urged the deacon to collect stories from the congregation about their memories of the building.
“I told them it would be wonderful to share those stories as they move to a new building, that they haven't lost the heart of their church. But when they were tearing it down—that was a poignant moment,” Shores said.
The tornadoes in Georgia hit African-American communities and white communities, low-income communities and middle-class communities. Their commonality is that none of the small communities has ever experienced this kind of disaster before.
“We've been doing what we can to assist them,” Shores said, but at the same time, it's important to remember that part of respecting a community is acknowledging that it's their disaster, and their recovery.”
North Georgia lost 500 buildings, most of them homes, to the tornadoes, Shores estimated. “But it wasn't enough to become designated as a federal disaster area.”
In Mississippi, where the same band of tornadoes struck, The United Methodist Church is reaching out to a Hispanic community, said the Rev. Andy Stoddard, pastor at Asbury UMC in Petal.
“Several Hispanic portions of the town were hit, including two trailer parks,” he said. “Our church already had a relationship with some of the residents there. One of the families is staying in a church member's trailer home and we put up another family in a hotel.”
Part of working with ethnic communities involves building relationships before disaster ever strikes, Stoddard pointed out. “Our church has done some summer camps with the Hispanic community,” he said. “In the Hispanic community in particular, there are language issues and legal issues that are much more difficult in the wake of a disaster if you don't already have credibility and previous connections.”
There's no magic secret to building partnerships with people in ethnic neighborhoods or communities other than walking out of your church building and into different communities to meet people where they are, he added. “People need to show the love of Christ, and that means not just preaching from the pulpit.”
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*Susan Kim is a journalist and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org.