College students from Texas Annual Conference Church serve in Lake Charles hurricane recovery
By Lindsay Peyton
Usually, the year begins at Houston’s Memorial Drive UMC with a week-long mission trip for college students while they are home for winter break. This being no ordinary year, organizers began brainstorming and rethinking their plans months in advance. The church found a way for mission to continue in the pandemic -- and headed to Lake Charles for disaster relief.
Steve Cragg at Memorial Drive UMC has been organizing college mission trips for years. In the past, students have built showers on trailers in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They headed to Alabama after tornadoes struck, and they completed Habitat for Humanity projects. Normally, 25 to 30 college students roll up their sleeves for about four or five days, traveling out of state to help those in need.
Cragg knew that with COVID-19, a typical trip would be impossible. Still, he was determined to find a way to continue. “We knew that we wanted to do something, but we were limited,” he said.
In November, Cragg started searching for options. “We knew that Lake Charles still needed help,” he said. “Even though Hurricane Laura had been months ago, there was still work to be done.”
He went on the Louisiana Conference website and found University UMC in Lake Charles. He emailed Senior Pastor Angela Bulhof. “She replied instantly,” he recalled.
Bulhof explained that the coronavirus prevented the usual number of volunteers from coming to the city’s aid. In fact, only two teams had arrived to help her church since the storm.
During Laura, one entire brick wall at University UMC collapsed. The roof of the sanctuary folded in on itself and then fell over. The sanctuary, Sunday school classrooms, staff offices were lost. Church members’ homes were also devastated.
Then, only a couple of months later, Hurricane Delta compounded the damages when it hit on Oct. 10. “It was a one-two-punch,” Pastor Bulhof said. “A lot of people not affected in August ended up having to gut their houses in October.”
Members of her conference, who had previously trained to help others in disaster relief, were now struggling to repair their own homes. Bulhof was still ready to offer assistance, but University UMC remains under repair itself. Everything that was once inside the building is now in storage in Dallas.
Six people in the church trained with Bulhof to handle site assessments and dozens of homes on their list for crisis clean-up.
“Every time someone reaches out and asks how they can help, that is just hope in the flesh,” Bulhof said. “It’s really live-giving.”
When Memorial Drive UMC called, she told Cragg that they would have to bring their own tools. “I don’t even have access to a room in my church,” she added.
Cragg was undeterred. “They’re still in a world of hurt,” he said. “There’s still trash everywhere, tarps on roofs, porches knocked down, buildings devastated.”
Bulhof agreed to line up work to be done – and Memorial Drive UMC began spreading the word to college students. They set the date for a one-day mission trip, Wednesday, Jan. 5.
At 6:30 a.m. about 20 students arrived at the church, Mark Bogart, director of youth ministry, said. They boarded the bus heading for Lake Charles. “We took one huge coach so we could spread out safely,” he said.
The group followed best safety practices for COVID-19 developed by Spring Branch ISD for keeping a distance on the bus. In addition, everyone on the trip wore a mask the entire day.
Bulhof made arrangements for the students to work on three houses. “A lot of it was knocking out drywall where it had flooded and mold could begin growing,” Bogart said. “We also tore out wood paneling. The houses we worked on were definitely uninhabitable.”
Bulhof was impressed with the students. “They came, unloaded the bus, laid all their tools in the yard, and they were ready to work,” she said. “It’s such a blessing when people show up like that. You could tell they put their faith into action.”
The students worked until dark. They also saw the lasting impact of the hurricane and learned firsthand about the experience from the homeowners and the families they met, Cragg said.
“Often for college students, it’s out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “You don’t always realize that people are hurting.”
Sarah Eiser, a freshman at the University of Arkansas, said that the mission trip was eye-opening. “I knew about the hurricanes, but I didn’t know how bad an impact they had in Lake Charles,” she said. “I didn’t realize how many houses needed help.”
At the end of the day, she was surprised to see how much sheetrock her team was able to demolish and remove from the houses. She explained that the homeowners did not have insurance, and this free labor was valuable to them.
“These people will have a chance to continue to have a house,” Eiser said. “And they don’t right now. Even the smallest jobs, that you think might not have an impact, can have a big impact. One person will never change the world. But one small thing can have a domino effect to a bigger solution.”
Cragg was proud of the students for their accomplishments. “The kids had a great experience,” he said. “And it’s great to see them in action. They don’t even know that they’re heroes.”
Bogart felt the same way. “It shows such warmth and compassion in our college students,” he said. “We are the hands and feet of Jesus.”
Cragg explained that while the trip was shorter than normal, it demonstrated how mission work can continue even in the midst of a pandemic.
“Now we can be advocates,” he said. “It can happen. You can still do it. You just have to be smart.”
Cragg encourages other churches to send teams to Lake Charles, where they can make a major difference, even in a short time.
“There’s so much work still to be done,” he said. “We’re also going to spread the word to the rest of our missions people, and say, ‘What are we waiting for?’ If we can help out a little bit, that’s what we’re called to do.”
Bulhof said that because of COVID-19, and the high demand for contractors in the city, she expects recovery will take a long time. “We’ll be in this for a number of years,” she said. “We’re gearing up for a marathon.”
Church members are still evacuated from their homes. The congregation still is waiting to repair their building. Nonetheless, parishioners are helping neighbors fix the damage to their homes.
Bulhof invites church teams to contact her to learn about needs and ways to help. “We do have people on hand who can show you what needs to be done,” she said. “We can walk you through it.”
St. Luke’s-Simpson UMC in Lake Charles is offering teams space to stay at their church overnight. Even day-long mission trips, however, are welcomed, Bulhof said.
“The main thing is you showing up,” she explained. “The work is secondary to the fact that you are demonstrating that people still care. No matter how much you can do, no matter how many hours in the day, it’s a blessing.”
To contact Pastor Angela Bulhof and learn how your church can help, email firstname.lastname@example.org.