Mennonites and Baptists join Methodists for hurricane recovery in Newton County
By Lindsay Peyton
The Mennonites from Weaverland Disaster Response have been a fixture in Houston, helping with Hurricane Harvey recovery for the past three years. Their teams stay at Cypress UMC, and they have formed a long-term relationship with the church. Now, the Mennonites are joining United Methodist volunteers to help Newton County after Hurricane Laura, as well as crews from the nearby Baptist church. Together, these teams from all denominations are making a real difference – and acting as the hands and feet of Christ.
The damage from Hurricane Laura is painstakingly clear in Lake Charles and Port Arthur. Newton County, which hugs Texas’ eastern border, was also hit by the storm.
Still, it can be somewhat difficult to see the effects in the county, which is primarily rural, explained Billie Jordan, executive director of Somebody Cares Jasper-Newton Counties. The nonprofit, dedicated to long-term recovery, formed after the flood in 2016 of the Sabine River.
The organization is housed by the First Baptist Church in Kirbyville and its Pastor Charles Burchett serves as chairman of the board of directors. Many residents of Jasper and Newton Counties were still recovering from the flood when Hurricane Harvey struck in August 2017 – and since then, were battered again and again by severe storms and heavy rainfalls.
Jordan was finishing up a grant for Harvey recovery when Hurricane Laura hit the area. “So many times, Newton County gets left out,” she said. “In rural areas, everything is spread out. It’s hard to tell how bad it is.”
Poverty in the area makes the damage from the storm even worse and typically adds to the time it takes to recover. But, with this storm, help was on the way immediately -- and that makes all the difference.
The nonprofit All Hands and Hearts, which addresses immediate and long-term needs of communities impacted by natural disasters, arrived first, Jordan said. First Baptist Church in Kirbyville provided the team with a place to stay as they started to assess needs. Then, a team came from AmeriCorps.
“We’ve been going from the weekend after Laura,” Jordan said. “With their help, we were able to step in to rebuild faster.”
Next on the scene was Team Rubicon, a nonprofit comprised of military veterans, deployed to help after natural disasters. Jordan also connected with Dr. Godfrey Hubert, disaster relief coordinator for the Texas Annual Conference.
Not only would teams from United Methodist Churches help, but Hubert also connected her with a group of Mennonites who specialize in recovery and rebuilding -- Weaverland Disaster Response.
The Mennonites had helped Cypress UMC for the past couple of years with Harvey recovery. Rev. Tony McCollum explained that they have formed a lasting relationship. “They’re our friends,” he said. “It’s mission work at its best. We found out that the world is a lot smaller than we thought, and the church is a lot bigger.”
While Jordan knew that having the Mennonites serving in Newton County would be a blessing, she was concerned that the area would be overlooked. “I was almost in tears,” she said. “I told them, if you come to our county, take just one side road and you’ll see it.”
The Mennonite coordinator Raymond Burkholder, however, reassured her.
“When Raymond said, ‘We’re coming,’ I was like, ‘Thank the Lord,’” Jordan recalled. “It’s a burden lifted from our people, and we’re so grateful.”
Burkholder explained that his group felt called to be in Newton County. “We like to think we go by the Lord’s leading,” he said. “Everybody wants to be in the middle of the action. We’re trying to help people on the edges.”
Usually, Burkholder explained, the Mennonites come after the harvest season, in the winter. “We’re starting earlier this time, because of the need,” he said.
Already, Mennonite volunteers are busy repairing roofs and sawing fallen trees. They also are patching sheetrock and repainting. Regardless of the job, Burkholder said, it reflects their mission to share God’s grace.
“We’re trying to be the hands and feet of Jesus,” he added. “A lot of times, people feel hopeless. People forget there’s still a lot of good in the world today.”
They share that mission with the United Methodist volunteers they are working alongside in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura. “It’s a perfect fit, because of that,” Dr. Hubert said.
He explained that the Mennonites are thrilled to serve, even in the humblest of ways. The men are a prime example of the image of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, he added.
The same was true of John Wesley, who spoke of social holiness, who visited the imprisoned, gave to the poor and spoke out against slavery. He promoted health, education and what we would call today, social justice.
Hubert explained that Mennonites have the same conviction to help others. “It’s a DNA that we share,” he said.
Hubert added that witnessing the Mennonites, Methodists and Baptists working shoulder to shoulder with Hurricane Laura recovery is heart-warming. He said that when different faith groups work together, it makes substantial and sustainable relief efforts possible.
Jordan said that Dr. Hubert has been a Godsend to their efforts. “I just thank God for Godfrey,” she said. “He’s helping me with calls and case management. I am so grateful that he could help me do that.”
She is also thankful for all the teams that stepped up to help out Newton County. “These are poorer people, and they often can’t afford insurance,” she said. “They’ve gone through floods back to back. I was glad to start helping them early on.”
By working together, Mennonites, Methodists and Baptists are showing Christ’s love.
“We’re trying to get His light out there in the world,” Jordan said. “We’re trying to give people hope. We’re still there to help, no matter what.”
Hubert said that a number of TAC volunteers are staying at FUMC Jasper to help. Donations are needed, however, to underwrite the costs of continued operations. For more information, visit txcumc.org/texasrecovers.