Blessed to be a blessing: UMCOR recipients pay it forward
Five years ago, a fertilizer blast flattened West, Texas, a rural community of 2,800, killing 15 people and destroying hundreds of houses. The home of Joey and Rose Kolar and their two children was severely damaged in the explosion.
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“Insurance denied their claim,” said Nikki Leaverton, disaster recovery director for the Rio Texas Annual Conference. “They couldn’t afford to build a new house because they still owed on the old house. After participating in United Methodist Committee on Relief case management as a client, they were taken to the unmet needs committee and awarded a grant. Some of that funding was from UMCOR. The house was demolished, and a new house was built in its place.”
The Kolars told Leaverton that “if and when they ever decide to move, they want to give that house to someone else — to bless someone else with the house that was such a blessing to them.”
From flood and fire to hope
Blessed to be a blessing. Rebecca “Becky” and Ron Holten, survivors of the Grand Forks, North Dakota, flood 20 years ago understand that concept well.
In the spring of 1997, a deadly combination of abundant snowfall and extreme temperatures forced the Red River over its banks, drenching the Red River Valley. In Grand Forks, floodwaters extended more than three miles inland. More than 50,000 people — most of the city’s population — evacuated. At the same time, a huge fire downtown blazed through 11 buildings and 60 apartment units.
Although the Holten home was spared, the family of five had to evacuate. “The flood was a great equalizer in many ways,” Becky said. “It treated everyone the same. We were all in the same situation.”
UMCOR sprang into action. The family’s church, Zion United Methodist, and its parking lot became the city’s UMCOR headquarters. Becky coordinated the church's volunteers.
Amid a bad situation, much good emerged. People shared cleaning supplies and tools from the first stage of mucking out sludge to the final step of rebuilding homes. “Volunteers from all over used our church to stay in and to cook meals,” Becky recalled. A trailer became a temporary child-care center.
“Until you have experienced a disaster, you have no clue what the disruption is like,” she said. “Where do you find water to drink or your meals? How do you get your mail? How do you find child care? What happens when it is time to file your income tax and all of your documents have been destroyed? How do you grieve and cope with the loss of valuable memories?
“UMCOR is there to work in partnership with the community to see how needs can be met. UMCOR is there through the process of case management, walking with people on the journey.”
Fourteen years after the Grand Forks disaster, massive flooding hit Minot, North Dakota. By then, Becky was director of camping and youth ministry for the Dakotas Conference. She and her colleagues spent three days working in a home there. “As camping staff,” Becky explained, “we wanted to give back to the conference, and working in Minot was one way we could do that.”
In the summer of 2015, Becky — now the Rev. Rebecca Holten — became a licensed local pastor. She serves four rural congregations near Jamestown, North Dakota.
‘UMCOR is us’
While volunteering in Minot, Becky met Bob and Ada Lower, a couple who rose above their own tragedy to serve their neighbors.
The Mouse River flood had claimed the Lowers’ home, and their church, Faith United Methodist, also lay in ruin.
Right after the flood, Ada remembers asking: Where is UMCOR?
“I didn’t realize UMCOR is us — the first and the last feet on the ground,” she said. Bob stepped in as the associate coordinator of disaster relief for the Minot Area, with UMCOR providing money and teams from across the United States. Ada was case manager for about 1,000 families affected by the flood. UMCOR paid her salary for four years. And after the flood wiped out the Lord’s Cupboard food pantry, UMCOR funded a trailer to house the much-needed resource.
“I remember telling everyone how proud we were to be part of UMCOR,” Ada said.
Three years ago, the Lowers moved to Casselton, North Dakota, but they’re still sharing their blessings.
Bob is business manager for the 350-member Calvary United Methodist Church. Ada chairs the congregation’s outreach team. “We serve at Churches United, a homeless shelter, and at The Pink House for North Dakota State University international students,” she said.
What keeps them going? “It’s the heart that the Lord has given both of us,” Ada replied.
Bob added, “God has given us the energy. We’re in our 70s, and we’re still at it.”
What is UMCOR Sunday?
For more than 50 years, United Methodist congregations have participated in a special UMCOR Sunday (formerly One Great Hour of Sharing) offering, laying the foundation for UMCOR’s ministry of relief and hope. Donations UMCOR receives through this offering, along with other undesignated gifts, cover costs of doing business. Gifts make it possible for UMCOR to use 100 percent of all other contributions on the projects donors specify, instead of on administrative or fundraising costs.
UMCOR receives no United Methodist World Service or apportionment funds, so without the offering, UMCOR would not exist.
Because UMCOR keeps operating costs under 10 percent of its total budget, undesignated gifts may actually exceed UMCOR’s administrative needs. When that happens, UMCOR Sunday support is channeled to underfunded programs, where they’re most needed. They also may be used to allow UMCOR to respond to disasters immediately after an event and before funds can be raised.
‘I can’t give enough thanks’
In Hattiesburg, Mississippi — 1,600 miles south of Minot — Alfred Brown also believes he is blessed to be a blessing.
On Jan. 21, 2017, Brown was watching TV. He saw a weather alert flash across the bottom of the screen but paid little attention.
“All of a sudden,” he recalled, “the house shivered. And like a flash, the roof flew off!”
The tornado that ripped through southern Mississippi that day left four people dead and leveled homes, sliced off roofs and tossed trees like matchsticks.
But Brown and his wife Delores didn’t worry that their house was missing a roof and had sustained water damage in the rain that followed the tornado. “It was just a roof,” Alfred said simply.
With his tractor, he quickly went to work, clearing debris from the neighborhood. “I let people use my trailer to haul materials,” he continued. “I just lent a hand.”
And when repairing and rebuilding began — even though his own claim hadn’t yet been approved — Brown used his tractor again to lift rafters for new roofs. “It’s rewarding,” he said.
The couple’s house is finally being repaired. “I had help, and I still have help,” Brown said. “I can’t give enough thanks.”
Christ’s hands and feet
Darrell Lewis “flipped a lot of houses” before he moved to Mississippi 11 years ago. Starting as a volunteer with Rebuild, Recover and Restore Mississippi, a nonprofit agency that works with UMCOR, he became the agency’s construction supervisor six years ago.
“I don’t think there’s a faith group I haven’t worked with,” he said. “It’s so important to get volunteers who can be on the ground and work with clients. We’re Christ’s hands and feet, providing both funds and resources.”
Esmeralda “Missy” Gordillo, Brown’s case manager with UMCOR, added, “Our faith in Jesus allows us to look beyond ourselves and help others. We connect with those who are in the midst of a disaster, and our response is to support them in any way possible. It’s not just recovery. It’s also meeting emotional, spiritual and basic needs. Collaboration and partnership are really important.
“The goal is to make everybody whole.”
Mellie Jordan, Mississippi Conference disaster recovery project manager, always looks forward to UMCOR Sunday. “I don’t know that it’s possible to truly appreciate and understand UMCOR,” she said, “until your own community is left in the aftermath of a disaster and you need a disaster-experienced, caring, Christian presence.
“UMCOR makes a daunting and overwhelming recovery a tangible reality for survivors and the United Methodists God has called to serve with him.”
Retired from United Methodist Communications, Dunlap-Berg is a freelance writer and editor living in Carbondale, Illinois.