Sep 10, 2021 | John W. Coleman

The Eastern PA Conference wants to help hard-hit local churches and communities recover from severe damages inflicted by the remnant of Hurricane Ida as it swept through the Northeast region Sept. 2.

Walnut Street, Mont Clare

Several churches and numerous communities were ravaged by flooding and high winds, as one of the strongest hurricanes in recent memory wreaked havoc and historic destruction on Louisiana Aug. 29-30 and then careened northeast as far as Eastern PA, New Jersey and New York. At least seven tornadoes also touched down in our area. 

Among the counties hardest hit by the storm were Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia. A handful of UM churches reported damages and sought to remove water, mud, and soaked debris from their buildings with the help of volunteers and donations. But further remediation will be a long, hard and expensive process for some.

Historic Otterbein UMC in Mont Clare, near Phoenixville, may have suffered the worst, as a canal near the Schuykill River flooded. Water reached the ceiling of the church’s fellowship hall, submerging its electrical panel and heater, along with its popular “mission closet” thrift shop, where donated clothing is kept and distributed. The last major flood there was in 1972.

The “mission closet” at Otterbein UMC, Mont Clare

While the sanctuary and parsonage were spared, there is no electricity, said the Rev. Catherine Bowers, who became the church’s interim, quarter-time pastor Sept. 1, a day before the storm hit. She invited members to worship on Sunday with her other congregation at Evansburg UMC.

Bishop John Schol, who became Eastern PA’s episcopal leader Sept. 1, met with the conference Cabinet and disaster response coordinator to learn about reported damages and relief efforts, and to explore how the conference might respond to the ordeal both immediately and in the long term.

That response should include funds raised through the conference’s ongoing Disaster Response Advance Special Fund (#0345). Bishop Schol appealed for generous donations and other aid in a new video message addressed to Eastern PA Conference members and churches. That video is featured in a new letter the bishop is sending to pastors and churches Friday.

“We’re all going to need to work together to help the people of eastern Pennsylvania rebuild and move forward,” he says, lamenting the storm’s destruction that has forced churches to close and residents to leave their homes.

Schol is also bishop of the Greater New Jersey Conference, where leaders are responding to damages that occurred among several churches and communities there. He requested and received customary, initial $10,000 post-disaster “solidarity grants” for both conferences from the UM Committee on Relief (UMCOR).

But much more will be needed from the relief agency and other sources, starting with conference members and churches.

“I’m calling on all of you today to do everything you can to help in the relief efforts by donating food, water, clothing, and also to begin to prepare for a longer-term recovery,” Schol says in the video. “There are communities that will take a year, even two years to recover after this storm.”  

(fFom left) The Rev. Catherine Bowers and two friends, the Revs. Gary Knerr and Mark Young, rest from their labors.

Indeed, Otterbein’s members, neighbors and fellow churches generously gave time and treasure—trash bags, containers, paper towels, food and beverages and much more—promptly after the storm passed and left destruction in its wake. A friend loaned lay leader Diane Maylen a pump to extract water. Lighthouse Community UMC in Glenside contributed a dumpster, which quickly filled with refuse. Volunteers came clad in boots, gloves and N95 masks. A community group set up a table to provide food and drinks on the church lawn.

“People kept coming and bringing stuff we needed,” said Bowers, who described the community as close-knit. “As of Sunday evening (Sept. 5) almost all of the wet stuff was taken out of the church. That was a miracle! Thanks to our community volunteers and the extended UM family for coming to do this hard work.”

But she and her church trustees eventually became exhausted and began feeling effects from the strong odors, the mud and possible mold, the new pastor admitted. So, a professional remediation team will continue the work, including removal of soaked, ruined drywall. “We’ve said no more volunteers for now,” Bowers said.  

The Well, Hopewell UMC’s community center in Downington

Other churches that were damaged include Chalfont UMC, which had flooding in its basement and ground floor, and Calvary UMC in Ambler, whose basement was also flooded. Hopewell UMC’s outreach ministry center, The Well, which provides community programs and transitional housing in downtown Downingtown, is also responding to damage and losses there.

These and other churches are working with local partners to help their neighbors recover from the storm’s devastation. And the Eastern PA Conference wants to join that partnership wherever it can. District Superintendents are checking with the churches they supervise.

Robert Simcox, conference Disaster Response Coordinator, visited with the Rev. Amy Banka, Hopewell’s pastor, and Jen Lisowski, Director of Lay Ministries, Thursday to explore the needs and efforts happening at The Well.

“Hopewell UMC is in full disaster mission,” he said. “On our tour they had stops scheduled to hand out gift cards. They have a truck to receive non-perishable food and cleaning items. They are coordinating receiving and delivery of items. They’re engagement in the community. I witnessed volunteers coming to drop off and to deliver to residents in need.” 

He reports that anyone who needs remediation assistance should get on Southeastern PA VOAD’S (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters) Crisis Clean-Up list by calling 844-965-1386.

When the time comes soon for skilled volunteers to safely do the hard labor of remediation Simcox will deploy trained Early Response Teams (ERTs) to needed sites. “We have 49 registered ERT members in our conference,” he reports. But he will soon offer an online course—a new, COVID pandemic-related innovation—to train more volunteers for the big jobs ahead.

“This is our time to do all the good we can to shine God’s light in communities around Eastern Pennsylvania,” urges Bishop Schol in his new video message to the conference. He also provided separate videos to individual, impacted churches to encourage them. “This is our time to come together and work together. We are stronger together.”

Watch Bishop Schol’s video message to the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.