Why would a team of retirement-aged people from upstate New York drive to southwest Louisiana to help some people they’ve never met and probably will never see again?
John Carney is one of the United Methodist Church’s Early Response Team members from the Upper New York Conference who put in five days of manual labor in Lake Charles, and he knows exactly why.
“People need help, and if we all did this, many of our problems wouldn’t exist,” he said. “If you see and you listen, you will hear God’s voice. That’s why I’m doing this.”
John and a handful of ERT volunteers made the 1,500-mile trek to Lake Charles to help clean out homes flooded by Hurricane Harvey. The call for help came from the Louisiana Conference, and a team from several UMC congregations in New York was assembled. Vinton Welsh Memorial United Methodist Church near Lake Charles served as host for the team.
The work is hard, the smell is bad, the days are long, and the heat is miserable. “It drains you emotionally, it drains you physically, and it’s a long drive home,” John said. “(But) it’s satisfying and glorifying for what it accomplishes.”
“I’m the hands and feet of Christ, and I just do it,” said Diane Thurlow of Cleveland Hill UMC in Buffalo, NY.
“We used our feet to get down here, we’re using our hands to help in the cleanup after the hurricane,” said Marylou Buck of North Ontario United Methodist Church.
“It’s part of our mission, and this is what we’re called to do,” said Ray McCabe of Kenmore United Methodist Church in Buffalo. “We need to show people that God is alive, and Christ still calls us, and there still are people who believe and are willing to answer the call.”
Marylou answered the call partly because of the kindness she received decades ago.
“I was widowed when I was 32 years old, and I had six children,” she said. “People helped me, and I have to give back for that reason.”
Marylou’s first mission trip was in Lake Charles in 2010, and she saw an opportunity to return when Harvey struck.
The flood victims have sustained major damage to their homes, they’ve lost their possessions, and strangers from far away are in their homes, ripping and removing walls, hammering apart tiled floors and discarding soaked insulation. What does one say to the victims?
“You don’t, you listen,” John said. “When they want to talk to you, they’ll talk to you. You’re in somebody’s life who’s been through a catastrophic situation. They’re angry, they’re confused, and they feel hopeless. By being there and just letting them know and letting them see that you can help…you can remove so much of that frustration and hopelessness.”
Lake Charles was the first mission trip for Ruth Olschewske of Sodus Point United Methodist Church, and she saw first-hand the devastation and heartache a disaster can cause. Ruth and the others made sure someone was always with the homeowner during the cleaning.
“I think she was depressed a little bit because of the situation she was in, so one by one, we sat with her, kept her company for a little while,” Ruth said. “We gave her some hope, I think.”
But, back to the why…why do the Early Response Team members put their own lives on hold to drive across the country to help others with no reward other than a good feeling of helping one’s neighbor?
“It’s what God wants me to do,” Diane said.
“I felt God called me to help,” Ruth said.
“We are in fact blessed by the opportunity to be here and to meet these people and to serve Christ in this way,” Ray said. “So, I consider this not a burden but a blessing for all of us. It truly is a blessing to be a member of a church that is more than your congregation in your building. We are united as Methodists.”