We Belong to Each Other: What the Trees and United Methodists Know

Britney Winn Lee
September 17, 2021

Four months ago, I rode shotgun in a southbound vehicle on interstates 49 and 10, heading to Baton Rouge for the recording of our mostly virtual annual conference. For a few hours, I stared out the window noting a forest floor of fronds thickening under pine and oak canopies. Even the foliage knows when it’s past the Alexandria line, it seems.
 
But last week’s drive in the same direction was different—less hot, sure, but also less peaceful. If you want to know the state of a place’s soul, look to its trees. For residents of Southeast Louisiana, Hurricane Ida has done quite a number on theirs.
 
Hauling a 20’ trailer behind a borrowed diesel truck loaded down with gas cans and drinking water, I watched as the woods told a story: “Something painful has taken place.” Some gnarled and snapped, roots peeled and branches scattered; some being hauled off by slow machinery, removed forever from the only “home” they’ve known. All bearing the aftermath, one way or another, as no tree (like no person) is an island.
 
I can’t stop thinking about the trees.
 
Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees writes, “The reason trees share food and communicate is that they need each other. It takes a forest to create a microclimate suitable for tree growth and sustenance. So it’s not surprising that isolated trees have far shorter lives than those living connected together . . . “ There is, it turns out, a scientifically proven and incredible connection that trees have with each other which includes a commitment to nutrient exchange and care for neighbors. Dr. Suzanne Simard calls these “qualities of reciprocity and mutuality,” and notes that the best of the forest is the best of humanity.
 
And isn’t this something that United Methodists know well?
 
Rev. JoAnne Pounds—pastor of Algiers UMC and Belle Chasse UMC in Orleans and Plaquemines Parishes—has witnessed and participated in this reality intimately over the last few weeks since Ida’s landfall. Having evacuated to Memphis with her electric-dependent mother prior to the storm, JoAnne found herself quickly contacted and surrounded by United Methodist pastors in Tennessee ready and willing to support her and her communities.
 
“A retired elder in Memphis reached out to me,” JoAnne said, “And invited me to come and share about disaster relief . . . they loaded my car down with relief supplies, ice chests, and frozen water to take back as soon as the roads were open.” Rev. Pounds (who, coming from the North Texas Conference originally, but serving in the Monroe District the past 7 years) had only served in the hurricane-vulnerable area for 2.5 months before Ida. She said that prior to evacuating, she was contacted by Rev. Katie Black who walked her through what was going to happen and what she could expect for the weeks following—information that has proven to be invaluable as JoAnne and her churches serve some of the hardest-hit areas of the state.'
 
Pastors, staff, and volunteers of Bartlett UMC in TN pray a blessing over flood buckets they’ve assembled.  
The immediate generosity of these and others—like the financial donation from a retired Elder in North Texas—made the distribution of initial supplies possible, even to areas only accessible by airboat, helicopter, or humvee through a partnership with the Plaquemines Parish Sherriff’s Office. Joanne called their first effort “hope bags,” which included the issuing of water, snacks, bandaids, insect repellant, hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes, and ten pages of information for how to get more help through organizations like Crisis Cleanup and the Blue Roof Project.

“There was help available but people didn’t know how to get it,” Pounds said regarding the need for packets. “‘Pastor, I’m running out of water, I need water, I don’t know what to do!’ is what one of my church members texted me [through spotty service] because she didn’t have internet; and I was able to get her that information.”
 
When JoAnne re-evacuated to Memphis (with Orleans and Plaquemines residents still being encouraged not to return), she was invited to dinner with members of Ellendale UMC who sent more funding and relief supplies, while Bartlett UMC packed and prayed over 100 flood buckets to send to UMCOR. Since her second return trip home, JoAnne has made a connection with Faith UMC in West Monroe who sent a giant tub of relief supplies, University UMC in Lake Charles whose members brought pallets of flood buckets and hygiene kits, and Broadmoor UMC in Baton Rouge who contributed donations that had come from all over (including diapers with a note from a church in Houston and gift cards from Florida).
 
“It was one thing to receive from people in Memphis who weren’t impacted by the storm. But to receive from people in Baton Rouge who were navigating their own aftermath and Lake Charles who are still recovering from Hurricane Laura . . . it was very humbling,” JoAnne told me. I concurred: to have someone give out of their excess is beautiful, but to have someone give out of their need is a miracle. And it matters—from the pair of socks to the $5000 check, it all matters in the story of our connectionalism which reminds hurting people that they are not alone.
 
Rev. Pounds said emphatically, “Almost everyone seems to feel forgotten. Whether they’ve simply lost the contents of their fridge or freezer (which could be itself hundreds of dollars) or whether they lost everything, it matters that they don’t feel forgotten. Our connection makes this possible.”
 
“[Connectionalism is] a peculiarly Methodist understanding of what it means to be the church.  According to connectionalism, the church is defined not by formal structures or doctrine or lines of authority.  It’s defined by connections between people: connections between pastor and pastor, between pastor and laity, and between laity and laity.  When The United Methodist Church claims to be a connectional church, that means that we hold such interpersonal connections in so high a regard that we understand them as the essence of the church,” Ph.D. Student David Scott writes.
From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Ephesians 4:16

 
While sometimes it results in our frustration over polity and institutionalism, our connection is also our legacy and our joy. It binds us in process and pain; it makes lighter the load that requires many hands. This United Methodist connection is what calls on our relationships and systematizes our care when the needs and the resources must get closer.
 
“I think about Ephesians 4:16,” Rev Joanna said in our call. “‘From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.’ In our world—as divided as it is right now over politics, racial division, COVID and masks and vaccines—the fact that someone that I’ve never met in Bartlett, or from Broadmoor or Faith or University will show up with an open heart and that willingness to help means everything.”
 
Trees go to incredible lengths to care for each other, did you know? Sometimes “even going so far as to nourish the stump of a felled tree for centuries after it was cut down” (Wohlleben) Surely, this is because, in the deepest parts of their design, they know what United Methodists know and what Louisianans are forced to remember so often between the months of June and November: we belong to one another. We must. And together is how we heal.
 
Rev. JoAnne Pounds would like readers to know that Algiers UMC is ready to accept Emergency Relief Teams, and those interested can contact ERT Coordinator Rachel Stoneman at 318-469-9100. Financial donations through the Louisiana Conference Disaster Relief Fund are greatly appreciated as recovery continues.
 

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