81 Days

Mark Lambert
May 09, 2022

The April 1 departure of the Amish men and women who rebuilt hurricane-damaged homes in Lake Charles was as low-key as their January 10 arrival from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and New York.

The 81 days in between were astonishing.

The numbers tell one story of the Methodist-led coalition’s success:
  • 46 homes rebuilt
  • 16,800 volunteer hours logged
  • $427,000 in materials purchased
  • $848,000 in value contributed to rebuilding homes in Lake Charles

Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey said she is “eternally grateful for the response and the outpouring of support” of the coalition’s work in Lake Charles. "The work of the coalition and the partnership with Amish volunteers have been a blessed combination." 

The other story is how these humble, soft-spoken Christians, often misunderstood and unfairly caricatured, provided the horsepower to a Methodist-led coalition. In the process, they forged a bond with their new co-workers and earned the deep appreciation of a Cajun community that feared it had been forgotten.

“It Was a God Thing”

As southwest Louisiana struggled to recover from Hurricanes Laura and Delta in late 2020, the pandemic prevented the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church from scheduling volunteer forces to rebuild the storm-damaged homes. The economic downturn made funds scarce, putting nearly all recovery efforts in limbo.

As the pandemic began to loosen in 2021, the Louisiana Conference organized a new coalition with Mennonite Disaster Service, the umbrella organization for the Amish, and the non-denominational Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders, which would provide construction management and supplies. The Louisiana Conference would handle case management and financing. In theory, each organization would leverage its own expertise to rebuild homes.

The coalition – along with local Methodist churches and other non-profit groups – had been cobbled together, but the puzzle pieces didn’t form a full picture. Where would the volunteers live? Who would provide transportation to and from the work sites for the Amish, who famously do not drive vehicles? How would the homeowners be properly vetted?

Bill Howell, the newly hired director of the Conference’s Office of Missional Engagement and Outreach, had no template to consult and no master blueprint to follow. He simply worked with others to solve problems as they arose. “Every time there was a challenge, a door opened,” Howell said. “It was a God thing.”

Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey remains eternally grateful for the response and the outpouring of support. "The recovery work in Lake Charles has been Spirit-led, holy and sacred," says Bishop Harvey. "The work of the coalition and the partnership with Amish volunteers has been a blessed combination." 

“We Said Yes”

Before the Amish would agree to send volunteers in January, they set up a test in December for the coalition. If the Louisiana Conference could present 10 cases of legal homeowners who demonstrated true financial need and had suffered significant storm damage to their homes, the Amish would go to Lake Charles in January and stay until April.

“It really was a demonstration of the capacity of the Louisiana Methodists’ case management abilities,” said Bart Tucker, chairman of the Fuller Center. “It was a pass/fail test, and it was a crucial success.”

Tucker said the Conference’s case managers are unsung heroes in the disaster relief process.

“We probably don’t give the case managers enough credit for making this work,” he said. “It’s easy to see the hammer and nails output. But not everyone sees the case managers and the finance people working in the conference office who are battling away to make this happen.”

The Amish agreed to provide the labor, but they still needed a place for 40-50 volunteers to stay. Howell made a phone call, hoping another door would open.
Bill Howell

“I got a call from Bill Howell, and he said the Amish are going to be in town, can they come by,” said Rev. Angela Bulhof of University United Methodist Church in Lake Charles. “I told them to come by, and I gave them a half-hour tour that turned into a two-hour planning session.”

The church had a 6,000 square-foot, second-floor space that used to be classrooms, but like a lot of things in Lake Charles, it had storm damage. The flooring was missing, and because storm damage and the pandemic had moved Sunday school elsewhere, it was one of the last spaces at the church to be repaired.

The Amish had a list of things they would need: sleeping quarters and beds for up to 50 volunteers; a large, enclosed space for meetings and dining; pavement next to the dining area for the kitchen and work trailers; water, sewer, and electricity hookups; and a team of drivers to take them to and from work sites.

University Methodist had none of this. The upstairs space was big enough, but there was no flooring or beds. The closest they had to a large dining area was an open-air picnic pavilion in the grassy backyard.

Besides, the church was still clawing its way back from damage to buildings and its members’ homes. Some members left Lake Charles after the storms and never came back. Many who remained – including Bulhof – were going through their own disaster recovery gauntlets of couch surfing, haggling with insurance adjusters and contractors, and navigating the labyrinth of government disaster relief.

Against this backdrop, Bulhof knew that hosting dozens of volunteers and driving them around Lake Charles for several weeks was not a reasonable plan.

“We said yes,” Bulhof said. “Now, we had five weeks to figure all of this out.”

Bishop Harvey is quick to praise the support. "While greatly appreciative it is clear that none of this work could have come to Holy fruition without the sacrificial gift of local congregations in the Lake Charles area and also across the Louisiana Conference," says Bishop Harvey. "The gift of presence and the gift of financial support are all sacrificial." 

'You People are Special!"

Everyone chipped in to help. The Louisiana Conference paid for the utility work to support the Amish kitchen trailer and lights. Church members called in favors to contractors to make the upstairs space livable and pour concrete pads outside. The Fuller Center donated bunk beds.

When the Amish arrived, they fashioned walls, doors, and windows with lumber and plastic sheathing to transform the picnic pavilion into an enclosed meeting/dining hall. They constructed ramps to connect the hall to the kitchen trailer. They built decks and walkways behind the church and set up flood lights so the young people could play at night. When the heat in the building went out, University Methodist members brought the Amish space heaters.

“It was nerve-wracking,” Bulhof said, “but it was exciting.”
Rev. Angela Bulhof

MDS agreed to leave several trucks and vans at University for transportation to and from job sites. But the coalition needed someone to drive those vehicles for the Amish, who do not drive vehicles, as part of their custom. Several Lake Charles churches, including University and St. Luke-Simpson United Methodist Church, asked for volunteers to commit to driving the Amish from place to place for at least two days a week. More than a dozen men signed up.

Now it was time to fulfill the mission, to repair homes that had been damaged.

The people of Lake Charles who suffered home damage were growing weary. It had been well over a year since Hurricane Laura struck the state, and many people, like Bonnie Ford, were living in homes with significant damage.

Laura ripped the siding off Ford’s house and destroyed one of the bedrooms. The insurance company repaired the interior damage and removed the rest of the siding, but it wouldn’t pay to replace the siding. Bonnie, 72, said many people suggested that she sue the insurance company, “but that’s not what the Lord was directing me to do.”

She heard a phone number mentioned on television for people who needed help to get their homes repaired, “and the Holy Spirit said, ‘Dial that number.’” Bonnie was now one of dozens of homeowners in Lake Charles being served by the Methodist-led coalition.

One Wednesday morning, a group of Amish men and women arrived at her house and began measuring, cutting, hammering, and painting. Over the next four days, Bonnie observed the quiet volunteers who worked hard and expected nothing in return, even bringing Bonnie homemade cookies.

She struck up conversations with them and came to appreciate their work ethic and servant attitude. Bonnie pulled the group leader aside and told him they were special people.

“He said, ‘No, we’re just ordinary people.’ I said, ‘No, you people are special. You’re doing what God says we should be doing,’” Bonnie said. “That’s what I call a neighbor. They left their state to come all the way to Louisiana to help people they didn’t know. Where do you find ordinary people like that?”

Phil Helmuth, who coordinates the Amish volunteers for MDS, explained that the Amish consider it a blessing to them to have the opportunity to serve others.

“We go in there because there are persons who have needs,” he said. “We come out, honestly, being blessed because of the faith being represented in those homeowners and the resilience they show. I don’t know how many times people said to us, ‘I believe God is going to take care of me.’ We were impressed with the faith represented by the people of southwest Louisiana.”

One of the things Bonnie noticed is that the Amish women work as hard as the men. Jerry Shirley, one of the drivers recruited from St. Luke-Simpson United Methodist Church, said he was “amazed” at the Amish women’s ability to perform tough work.

“The women were phenomenal,” he said. “Women in long skirts, walking around on top of the roof. The amount of work they did, they would put most guys to shame. And I’m talking physical work. Have you ever picked up a bundle of shingles?”

When the job at Bonnie’s house was finished, the Amish volunteers gave her a Bible, which they all signed. Bonnie, who is Baptist and knew nothing about the Amish before they worked on her home, said her newfound friends have made her reconsider the notion of helping one’s neighbor.

“When you look at the big picture, God put something on me that this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” Bonnie said. “I can do it right here in Lake Charles. If a neighbor needs her grass cut, it doesn’t have to be something big, just be there and help each other.”

"Spirit-Led, Holy, and Sacred" 

Although the coalition started as three organizations, one lesson learned was that more partners – including the Methodist churches in Lake Charles – were needed, Howell said.

“Without the local churches, we would not have been as successful,” he said. “I think another big piece of it is the coalition has been the catalyst to pull other non-profits together. It was outstanding. I don’t think the nonprofits had done that before.”

Tucker said bringing in other partners, including Episcopalians, Southwest Louisiana Responds, and other groups “broadened our reach to help families that are dealing with myriad needs. We are builders and case managers, so we can’t provide legal help or financial advice. Those things are available through other groups, and we saw it was important to have an open channel of communication to these other partners.”

Howell plans to duplicate the coalition process in southeast Louisiana, where Hurricane Ida caused massive destruction. The details are still coming together, Howell said, but MDS and the Fuller Center all have expressed a willingness to work together again.

“I would say we achieved what we wanted to achieve and far more,” Helmuth said. “We got a lot more accomplished than we thought we would, and we were able to bring people home. It worked very, very well.”

Bishop Harvey agreed, calling the recovery work “Spirit-led, holy, and sacred."

In fact, the Amish already have solid plans to return to southwest Louisiana in October, this time for a six-month stint. In the meantime, rebuilding will continue with other volunteer groups that come through Lake Charles. So far, about 300 volunteers are lined up.

And even though the Amish have returned to their homes until the fall, they still will play a part in the rebuilding effort through the summer. They left their tool trailers, kitchen trailer, and wash/shower trailer at University United Methodist for other volunteers to use.

“Their take on this was, these things were purchased to help people, so use them,” Howell said. “Just their whole attitude, of not being so attached to material stuff, is unbelievable.”

Bulhof was happy the Amish left behind their equipment. “It’s like, you want some people to leave something in your drawers when they stay with you, so they’ll come back.”

When the last busload of Amish volunteers left Lake Charles, “I was having all the feelings of separation anxiety,” Bulhof said. “I can’t say enough about the experience, but mostly about the friendships, we developed over time. I feel like, even though we came from different cultures, we came to the same conclusions as followers of Jesus Christ.”

Bonnie, the homeowner, feels the same.

“We serve one God,” she said. “We don’t have one God for the Mennonites, one God for the Methodists, one God for the Baptists. We serve one God. I thank God for putting the Mennonites and the Amish and the Methodists in my life.”

If you would like to support the relief efforts in Louisiana, please head here or text RELIEF to 800-500-5858. 

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