Churches Respond After Storms


United Methodists are opening their hearts, wallets and doors to people affected by violent storms that cut across the southern United States.

Between April 14 and April 16, hundreds of tornadoes leveled homes, toppled trees and ripped through churches in 14 states.

At least 45 people died as a result, including 22 in North Carolina, seven in Arkansas, seven in Alabama, six in Virginia, two in Oklahoma and one in Mississippi, according to news reports.

In tiny Tushka, Okla., a tornado killed a woman who was a member of New Zion United Methodist Church and her sister-in-law who was visiting. The storm also critically injured her husband, the church’s guitar player and board of trustees chairman. The victims’ names have not yet been released.

“How ironic that we find ourselves in Lent, leading up to Easter, where God makes all things new,” said Oklahoma Area Bishop Robert E. Hayes Jr..

“God has even defeated death. We mourn and we grieve, but we also realize there is a place prepared for them. We celebrate their lives and ministry, and we hope and pray God will restore and renew the work of that little church there.”

UMCOR responds

The death toll is unusually high for the spring storm season, said the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, who coordinates U.S. disaster response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

“The loss of life is going to be a more significant thing than the property damage,” he said. Still, he and other United Methodists are doing what they can to help people clear debris, find shelter and start to feel whole again.

So far, UMCOR has made a $10,000 grant to the denomination’s Mississippi Annual (regional) Conference for disaster assistance. Hazelwood said he also has been in contact with other United Methodist conferences to discuss their needs.

Assessments for possible relief efforts are just beginning, and in some areas, disaster-relief volunteers must wait for roads to reopen before they can offer aid.

  • In Oklahoma, volunteers from First United Methodist Church in McAlester have removed a large tree that had pierced the metal roof of Mount Zion United Methodist Church. The damaged church was still able to hold worship on Palm Sunday.
  • Two Alabama churches sustained heavy damage — Soul Chapel United Methodist Church in Geiger, and Bethlehem United Methodist Church near Greenville. At the Bethlehem church, the only thing left standing was a wall with a picture of Jesus. The congregation has no insurance, and members are considering merging with another nearby church.
  • In Virginia, Bellamy United Methodist Church in Gloucester is serving as a command post for the Red Cross, Salvation Army and Gloucester Community Emergency Response Team. “We opened up the church at 7:30 Saturday night even before the storms had left the area,” said the Rev. Ken Waclo, the church’s pastor. “Right now, we’re doing the initial impact work of helping families find their bearings, get them food, get them clothing and get them supplies. If they’ve lost their homes, we’re helping them find places to stay.”
  • In the North Carolina Conference, most districts have reported storm damage. The conference is establishing a Disaster Response Coordination Center and is seeking volunteers to help.

Church leaders in all the affected areas have requested prayer and financial help for the long-term recovery.

Donations for UMCOR’s response to the spring tornados can be made through its U.S. disaster response fund.

*Contributors to this story include Linda Bloom and Heather Hahn of United Methodist News Service, Holly McCray of the Oklahoma Conference, Mary Catherine Phillips of the Alabama-Western Florida Conference, Bill Norton of the North Carolina Conference and Linda Rhodes of the Virginia Conference.