Churches respond to disasters with ‘Joyful Generosity’

By John W.Coleman

Numerous Eastern PA Conference churches and districts have actively responded to recent disasters in the past month—especially hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria—prompted by a call for help from Bishop Peggy Johnson and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).

In addition to fundraising donations sent to UMCOR (about $135,000 sent through the Conference, plus more sent directly by churches), churches have also rallied to the desperate call for cleaning supplies in “flood buckets” and also hygiene kits.

“We have been overwhelmed by the response from local churches to the call for hurricane and flood relief supplies this fall,” reports Amy Fuselier, Director of UMCOR’s Relief Supply Network. Texas and Florida have been fully supplied with cleaning buckets and hygiene kits.

“There are 28,000 cleaning kits in the warehouse right now awaiting delivery to Puerto Rico when that becomes possible,” she said. “For the time being, do not begin any new collections of relief supplies. Once more kits have been delivered, there will be space in the warehouse to hold more.”

The Rev. Tracy Bass, East District Superintendent, recently announced the beginning of a district-wide relief effort for Puerto Rico in collaboration with the North District, whose superintendent, the Rev. Irving Cotto, is from the beleaguered U.S. territory island. Plans are also underway for several Cabinet members to travel to Puerto Rico on a mission trip early next year.

The North District’s own appeal has spurred donations of more than $30,000 so far, not including churches donating directly to the Conference and to UMCOR. Their goal is $100,000. Meanwhile, Dr. Cotto’s family members in Puerto Rico report that the biggest obstacle the island faces at this time is the domino effect of additional needs and problems that being without power can cause. Besides nonperishable food, other immediate needs for island residents include:

  • Batteries: For the next few months until electricity is restored.
  • Cash: The banking system is without electricity, and purchasing goods can only be done with cash. Gasoline, for example, is scarce and people wait in line for up to 12 hours every other day to get gas for whatever generators they may have.
  • Clothing: Much has been lost, even in department stores.
  • Over-the-counter hygiene items, etc.: toothpaste, toothbrushes, soaps, shampoos, etc.

Quakertown UMC is serving as a collection site for such items. Plans are being made for delivery to Puerto Rico in the next week. Quakertown UMC is located at 1875 Freier Rd., Quakertown 18951. The church phone number is (215) 536-4992.

Meanwhile, numerous churches are continuing to rise to the disaster response challenge, often enlisting the help of other churches and partners in their communities.

West Lawn UMC (South District) partnered with NorthStar UMC and Christ UMC, in Birdsboro, along with several local businesses, to collect items for 130 5-gallon flood buckets to be sent to UMCOR, reports West Lawn’s Communications Director Megan Mahler. The Wilson High School football team helped by loading buckets into a large van for transportation to UMCOR’s Mission Central in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

In addition, nearly $35,000 was donated (so far) to UMCOR to aid in relief effort. “One of the pillars of our mission at West Lawn UMC is Joyful Generosity,” wrote Mahler. When we see a need, we respond cheerfully.”

Solebury UMC (East District), inspired by Bishop Johnson’s episcopal letter, proved that “helping is contagious,” in the words of Bob Irving, Certified Lay Minister, when it partnered with employees of the First National Bank and Trust of Newtown, along with other Bucks County branch offices. Together they collected and filled flood buckets “to provide support to those impacted by the recent string of natural disasters.”

Longtime members Carole and Wayne Smith convinced the 30-member congregation to give it a try, and in the first week they produced 10 buckets. “But what happened next was quite a pleasant surprise,” said Irving.

Another member, Michelle Irving, who works for The First National Bank and Trust of Newtown, decided to take the idea to her workplace. During a department meeting, her coworkers voiced concern about the havoc the initial hurricanes had inflicted and were wondering what they could do to help.

When Michelle mentioned the flood bucket efforts taking place at her church, her coworkers were eager to join in. As the department began collecting flood bucket donations, Hurricane Maria struck the Caribbean and Florida. Another employee then took the flood bucket idea to the next level, said Bob Irving. Within days she organized a bake sale involving all the bank’s branch offices, and she challenged her coworkers to participate.

The employees together produced 10 additional flood buckets, and the bake sale tallied $500 to be sent to UMCOR. In addition, the effort grew with more personal and corporate donations, bringing the total donations to $750, “well beyond our expectations,” said Irving, who credits Bishop Johnson with the inspiration. “We took her message outside of our own walls to the local community….(and) this ‘small’ effort produced huge results!”

Other churches and also Mission ConneXions also did their part. The West District’s Pikes Mission ConneXion cosponsored a free Community Day concert and picnic Sunday, Sept. 24, at Overlook Park, featuring live music, food and competitive yard games for all ages. Over $2,000 in church donations went to UMCOR for disaster response efforts, plus $337 donated at the picnic.

Also, a member of Milton Grove UMC purchased 500 buckets and distributed them to area churches to fill with flood relief supplies. Hempfield UMC filled about 100 of those buckets.

Churches of the Pocono Mission Connexion (left)—including Analomink, Cherry Lane, Cherry Valley, East Stroudsburg, Faith (Stroudsburg), Poplar Valley, Reeders, Stroudsburg and Wooddale UMCs—were asked to collect flood bucket items and then come together in two separate packing sessions to assemble flood buckets.

“We had some hiccups along the way and learned a lot!” wrote the Rev. Candy LeBar, pastor of Faith UMC. “But in the end our churches packed 101 buckets to be sent to affected areas via the Lehigh Valley Outreach Depot” (in addition to the financial donations made to UMCOR by each church).

The South District’s Drexel Hill UMC collected cleaning supplies from its members and community and assembled flood buckets during the church’s Sept. 10 worship service, ending up with 26 buckets and $1,175 in donations for UMCOR disaster relief efforts.

“We are a small congregation but dedicated and hard-working,” wrote Dave Bjorkgren, the church’s communications and marketing coordinator. “Despite our limited resources, we continue to serve the community and bring God’s message of hope to our neighbors.”

Want to see a flood bucket volunteer assembly line in action? Watch Bjorkgren’s short video of their operation.

Finally, El Buen Samaritano (Good Samaritan) UMC, a Latino congregation that worships at West Chester UMC, has strong family ties to Mexico, which suffered two devastating earthquakes in September, the last one reportedly killing 370 victims and injuring more than 6,000 more. Church members and friends raised funds for disaster relief in both Mexico and Puerto Rico, led by the Rev. Evodia Villalva, pastor, and other leaders.

They prepared and served elotes hervidos (left), a special corn-on-the-cob treat often sold on streets in Mexico. Donations and offerings raised $500, followed by another youth-led fundraising activity Oct. 8. While Villalva is from Mexico, 11 other Eastern PA Conference Latino pastors are from Puerto Rico.

“Recent natural disasters in Latin America and disturbing actions in our nation strive us to think on what is important and how we represent the Body of Christ,” writes the Rev. Bruny Martinez, conference Latino Ministries Coordinator, whose mother was injured during the hurricane in Puerto Rico. “Our Latino/Hispanic congregations are trying to cope with despair and sadness, and at the same time trying to help those in need.”

NOTE: Eastern PA Conference Communications wants more information about churches, groups, districts and Mission ConneXions responding to disaster relief efforts–e.g., funds donations; flood buckets and health kits; special prayer campaigns; VIM teams; church presentations of information to spur responses; etc. Please send details and photos, with contact information, to communications@epaumc.org. Thank you!