By Betty Backstrom
Aug. 18, 2017 | Baton Rouge, LA
A year ago, Louisiana experienced historic flooding that affected thousands, devastating homes and businesses to such magnitude that it was reminiscent of the physical damage caused by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.
As expected, United Methodists throughout Louisiana stepped up, serving as the hands and feet of Christ for friends and strangers, alike.
Here are just some of the many stories from churches that were affected.
First UMC, Denham Springs
“We were one of the few church buildings in the heart of Denham Springs that did not flood,” said the Rev. Jaqueline King, pastor of First UMC in Denham Springs. “Immediately, I opened the doors of the church with one other staff member, who was not stranded and set up ‘new offices’ in the worship center/fellowship hall, where God opened up a distribution center. In all, we served more than 2,000 impacted individuals and families through the center."
“We were the only ministry that gave out bread and leather work gloves in the initial stages. The stores in the area that were not impacted were already out of supplies, and supply trucks could not get into the city without clearance. Yet, the churches in the area came to our doors and gave bread, clothes, shoes, and flood buckets. First UMC Denham Springs was the ‘House of Bread’ after that initial impact. Community members cried with joy because we had bread,” said King.
It has been said that a pastor holds people in the crucible of her soul. Rev. Jackie King
Many of the church’s members flooded—and have struggled. “We are at the one-year anniversary, and the sense of despair is heavy among those who ‘thought for sure that we would be home by now.’ They did not make it home for Christmas or Easter. Or the summer. Or for the start of this school year. And to not be home has been very disheartening,” she added.
First UMC in Denham Springs has offered grief counseling services, with the assistance of Family Plus Counseling, and offers a weekly contemplation circle to “unplug from the chaos,” as well as classes on managing grief. “Especially during the holidays," recalls King "when it became clear that not many would be 'home' for the holidays."
“While the distribution center was open, we offered Sand Play Therapy with Jodie Goens, who came to South Louisiana, pro-bono. The kids loved playing in the sand, and expressing themselves during such a difficult time,” said King.
The church has put on hold any programming during the fall of 2016, and has started an Alpha program and a Spark Kids program that meets on Wednesday nights, “People were ready to do something other than recovery work. This gets parents and families together while teaching a parenting class so that families can have a mid-week break and reconnect with themselves and the Holy Spirit,” said King.
One First UMC member wrote this touching letter to Rev. King,
“On the afternoon of Aug. 13, the Great Flood of 2016 changed our lives forever. We had no idea when we packed a few belongings, and were taken by boat, that our subdivision would never return, or that we would not live in our home again. We saved what we could, but lost all of our furniture, appliances, and lots of keepsakes. We had to sell the house as it was too costly to try to rebuild. You never think about how many rugs, toilet paper holders, trash cans, etc., you need until you are trying to replace them all at once. About the same time, there was an article in our church newsletter about flood relief assistance that was available to apply for. I have never been one to ask for help, but I sure did need it. I put a list together of things I needed to setup house and submitted it to the church. I was blessed as a recipient of your donations. I cannot begin to put into words how much it meant to me. I was able to get the items I needed and am getting settled into my new home. These past few months, I have recited this verse many times—‘Walk by Faith, Not by Sight.’ It has truly been a walk of faith but with God’s grace, and prayer, and donations, we will make it through.”
"It has been said that a pastor holds people in the crucible of her soul," said King. “I have found myself compassion driven. The long road to recovery is fraught with challenges no one could ever imagine. I find myself with more patience, and give grace to the angst and frustrations of my people. Whenever I am outside of the disaster zone, I am surprised the lack of knowledge people have regarding the struggles within this area. I tell the story - Fema trailers, abandoned homes, debris still lining our streets. Yet at the same time, so are the ‘now open’ signs. This is a reminder to me to be ‘now open’ to what God is doing through this recovery stage.”
Camphor Memorial UMC, Baton Rouge
The August floods of 2016 had a “devastating impact” on the members of Camphor Memorial, said the Rev. Clifton Conrad, pastor. “So we held services on Aug. 14, with the specific intention of praying for the homes and families that were impacted by the rains and flooding, and to make decisions on the church would respond. We decided to raise funds to purchase supplies for those that were being forced into the shelters, and to give financial support to members whose homes had flooded. I met some of the church members at WalMart, where together we purchased hygiene products, underwear, toiletries, diapers, and other supplies for some of the shelters in the Scotlandville area.
The finance committee for Camphor UMC wrote $500 checks for members with flooded homes. One of the members, a teacher, had close to 10 feet of water in her house. “She was at her wits end as to how she was going to buy clothes for herself and her kids for the upcoming school year. When she opened the envelope holding the check, she broke down in tears. She was able to not only buy school uniforms for her children, but to buy clothing for herself in order to begin the school year,” said Conrad.
On the Wednesday following the flood, members of the church continued to assist members by working together to gutting their homes. “Even though I personally had received about five inches of water, it was good for me to be able to go out and assist others. All together, we had about six or seven teams that went out to help with mucking and furniture removal,” said Conrad.
In addition, Camphor UMC held a Thanksgiving gathering for all the members who flooded. “It was a time of fellowship and a time to see where they were in the recovery process. We also took the opportunity to inform them of assistance that was still available through the church and through government agencies.
“Personally, I was extremely grateful for the assistance provided by the Conference and the Baton Rouge District, as well as my colleagues through the United Methodist Foundation of Louisiana LEAD initiative,” he added. “When I first looked at my belongings sitting out on the curb, I felt overwhelmed. My neighborhood looked like a war zone, with my neighbors wandering about the debris like zombies. However, God spoke to me and said, ‘It is just stuff! There is nothing that is set on the curb that cannot be replaced. You just have to trust me.’ From that point on, I did not focus on what I had lost, but on what God was going to do for me."
Live Oak UMC, Watson
During the flood of 2016, Live Oak United Methodist Church was one of the only places in the surrounding area that did not flood.
“That uniquely placed us in the position of being able to reach out and serve those around us who were in need and suffering,” said the Rev. Mark Crosby, pastor of Live Oak UMC. “Because we have established outreach ministries like our food bank and thrift store, people naturally turned to Live Oak during his time of trauma.”
They turned out by the hundreds. “Folks from every walk of life, every denominational label, they came to us for help. Ultimately, we sheltered over 424 people and 75 cats, dogs, and birds immediately following the flood. The youngest person sheltered was five days old—the eldest was in his late 80s, and on oxygen.”
Church members “did miraculous things for four days and four nights.” “With the help of God’s grace, people from our church, even if they had flooded themselves, showed up to help in any way they could. Our members cooked, cleaned, helped with providing security, and anything else that came up. One woman in the shelter went into diabetic shock, so a church member put her in his truck, and drove through four feet of water to get her to a hospital. The doctor said that one hour later, she may have died,” said Crosby.
He stated that the church’s response to the flooding event serves as a reminder of the goodness and grace and the nature of so many people at Live Oak. “Even people who typically were not actively involved, when this happened, they stepped up. More than 90 percent of this community was affected, losing their homes and businesses. They continue to restructure the lives and their futures. The other 10 percent was also deeply affected. They have had to carry a lot of the load of day-to-day living—getting people to work, finding food and shelter, helping others look for jobs. There is a great, overarching change that people continue to deal with.”
First UMC, Baton Rouge
Two years prior to the floods of 2016, First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge began a home repair ministry called Revive225. The vision for the ministry was to provide common home repairs for the downtown church’s immediate neighbors. “Little did we know that such a daunting endeavor was really God’s way of preparing us to respond to His children in the wake of one of the worst natural disasters to ever affect the state of Louisiana,” said Alex Byo, director of Missions and Revive225 for First UMC.
The church ultimately hosted close to 1,500 volunteers between Aug. 16, 2016 – just two days post–flood – and Aug. 5, 2017. Church mission crews from 24 different states, spanning as far west as Seattle, Washington to as far northeast as Buffalo, New York, and to as far south as Daytona Beach, Florida served through Revive225 to help with recovery efforts. Volunteers helped to gut homes, spray for mold, replace sheetrock, paint walls, install flooring and doors, and perform minor plumbing and electrical work.
“It didn’t take long to see how, all along, God was preparing us for one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced. We had all the ingredients to host volunteers and serve our community – facilities, tools, community connections, and the man power. Once volunteers began to come in droves, it felt like God’s gentle (or strong) nudge to be His hands and feet in Baton Rouge. Our prayer is that we have faithfully answered His call to action,” said Byo.
Broadmoor UMC, Baton Rouge
“The floods opened our eyes to the great need in our own backyard,” said the Rev. Donnie Wilkinson, pastor of Broadmoor UMC in Baton Rouge. “For decades Broadmoor has been active in various mission projects around the community, but over the past few years, the church has been sensing a renewed calling to hold up our corner of Baton Rouge by cultivating a Christ-centered community of compassion on the corner of Sharp and Mollylea.”
The flood helped me connect more deeply with more members of the congregation than at the start of any other appointment I’ve had. Rev. Donnie Wilkinson
Nearly 200 Broadmoor UMC households received water in their homes. In the days immediately following the flood, a small group of church leaders discerned what they believed God wanted the church to do specifically for members of the congregation.
“Over the next three months, I met one-on-one with almost all 200 families to hear their stories, and to share with them a gift of love from their church family--a pre-paid Visa check card that could be used for whatever would be most helpful to them as they began the recovery process,” said Wilkinson.
“When I would give them the cards, I would remind them of the story from the Book of Acts where everyone contributed out of their abundance so that no one was in need. The gift card was a modern manifestation of the same generosity of spirit exhibited in the early church,” he commented.
One woman told Wilkinson that the first thing she was going to do was go buy a new pair of shoes because the only ones she had were the sandals she was wearing when she waded through flood waters when leaving her home. Another gentleman said he was going to buy a microwave because he was tired of eating cold hot dogs.
Perhaps the most poignant story was about a young mother who, through tears, said she and her husband would hold onto the card until December. “She said she had become increasingly worried about where the money for Christmas would come, from but now she could take that off her worry list,” said Wilkinson.
“As a pastor heading into a new appointment, I had a plan to help build relationships with the members of the church and the community. The day the waters began to rise, that plan went out the window, and a new strategy to minister to and with the people of the church and community was devised, on the fly,” he added. “In many ways, the flood helped me connect more deeply with more members of the congregation than at the start of any other appointment I’ve had. That being said, I do not advocate for pastors going into new appointments to begin praying for 1,000-year floods to strike their community. But if one does, a door of opportunity will be opened.”