Church members headed out with chainsaws to help families without insurance. Meals were prepared for those without homes or electricity.
A church building was provided as a temporary home for a family. Cleaning and hygiene supplies were handed out in a trailer park.
Church leaders used the words “surreal” and “crazy” to describe the crisis-upon-crisis situation they found themselves in, after more than 150 properties were destroyed and 10 people died following storms in East Tennessee late on Easter, April 12.
“On the good side, it’s been a distraction from the routine of staying home. It sort of snapped us into another level of hands-on mission that we could tangibly do to help people,” said Eric Light, director of reach ministries at Ooltewah United Methodist Church. “It’s been gratifying but it’s also been sad, overwhelming, and surreal.”
“It’s been crazy -- really, really crazy,” said the Rev. Clair Sauer, pastor at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Chattanooga. “And it’s complicated with COVID-19 and trying to communicate with people who aren’t used to communicating digitally.”
Three families in the Wesley Memorial congregation completely lost their homes, Sauer said. She invited one family to live in the church for four days, until they could find an apartment. Later, Sauer and church members helped the family salvage belongings from their destroyed home.
Another church member, 94-year-old Marjorie Webb, lay in her bed all night beneath the rain after the tornado ripped off her roof. “She couldn’t get out of her bed because of debris all around,” Sauer said.
Webb, who is the widow of United Methodist army chaplain the Rev. Bob Webb, is safe and now at home with family in Knoxville, Sauer said.
Although Wesley Memorial’s basement flooded during the storm, the church had electricity, which others did not. Sauer offered the building to staff at Christ United Methodist Church, many who were struggling to operate without power at both office and home. Business Manager Bob Grow set up his computer at Wesley Memorial so he could pay staff on April 15 and carry out other work.
Wesley Memorial members also provided meals and gift cards (to food stores and restaurants) for families without electricity, Sauer said.
At Christ United Methodist, 50 families were identified as having “severe needs,” including total home destruction, heavy tree damage, or long-term electricity loss, said Lindsey Gallaher, director of missions.
Church staff quickly put up a volunteer sign-up on their website; more than 70 people responded within the first two days.
By April 22, Christ UMC had enlisted 250 total volunteers to send out 17 work crews to work on damaged properties. They also served 500 lunches for first responders and provided ongoing meals for 20 families without power.
Volunteers did the best they could to social distance and take other precautions to prevent spread of COVID-19, Gallaher said. “There was a handful who would have served on the clean-up teams, but they had to stay home and tried to figure out how to serve in other ways.”
Several leaders from other local churches reached out to offer help, including First-Centenary, Hixson, and Tyner, Gallaher said. Staff from Christ UMC removed the food from their kitchen freezers and took it to freezers at Tyner United Methodist Church.
At Ooltewah United Methodist, about 30 volunteers mobilized to help neighbors with damaged homes and downed trees. “We tried to focus on people without insurance, who had no way of getting the trees removed,” Light said.
For a week, Ooltewah sent out teams everyday with chainsaws, joining with Christ UMC workers on at least one team. This weekend, Ooltewah will send a team to work on a four-acre property with severe damage, Light said.
Ooltewah UMC was also the place where 504 cleaning kits and several hundred hygiene kits – assembled months ago by Holston Conference churches – were delivered April 17. The Rev. Harry Howe brought a trailer full of supplies to Ooltewah after loading up stockpiled kits from Project Crossroads in Marion, Virginia, and picking up more kits stored at Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Together with food and diapers donated by the community, Ooltewah workers took some of the cleaning kits and hygiene kits to a mobile-home park where many Hispanic families are struggling after being hit hard by the Easter storms and coronavirus-related unemployment, Light said.
Ooltewah staff also delivered 160 cleaning kits and 100 hygiene kits to Christ UMC for sharing with their neighbors, Gallaher said.
“We’ve always been part of putting together the ‘flood buckets’ and ‘health kits’ for other people,” said Light. “Now, to be on the other end of it, to see it come full circle, has been interesting.”
After hearing that many Chattanooga and Cleveland residents were struggling with finding shelter after the storms, Camp Lookout’s Don Washburn offered to provide temporary dwelling in Rising Fawn, Georgia. The camp is empty after cancellations related to COVID-19.
“The camp is sitting here vacant, and our main job is to serve congregations and to serve the United Methodist Church,” said Washburn, director.
In Cleveland, Broad Street United Methodist Church did not suffer from structural damage, but tree damage occurred around the Unity Center outreach ministry.
“It did not take long for a host of volunteers from local churches, high school sports teams and concerned individuals to show up and start the work of picking up the pieces,” said Mary Ketchersid, program administrator. “Complete clean-up will take a while.”
One of the Unity Center families lost their home in the tornado, Ketchersid said. “During the storm they hid under the kitchen table with a mattress over their heads.”
Teachers from the children’s school helped the single mother find a new home. Broad Street members helped by providing furniture and other household items, home-cooked meals and restaurant gift cards for the family.
“This is just one example of the caring and sharing spirit of God's people when the need arises,” Ketchersid said.
As of April 23, the Holston Conference finance office has received about $3,500 in donations to help tornado survivors in the Chattanooga and Cleveland area, according to Kathy Ratchford. Give by mailing a check to your local church with "Holston Tornado Response" on the memo line.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
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