By Kara Witherow, Editor
Hurricane Irma, which was downgraded to Tropical Storm Irma before it struck South Georgia Monday, Sept. 11, downed power lines, felled trees, flooded neighborhoods, and taxed local utilities throughout the region. One week after the storm, hundreds are still without power and full restoration will take months, officials say.
United Methodists across Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina are still assessing the damage and cleaning up after the deadly storm that left at least 81 dead in the Caribbean and United States. As with other recent disasters – Hurricane Matthew just 11 months ago and the January Albany-area storms – congregations and communities have come together to serve one another, share Jesus’ love, and show that the conference is Alive Together in Christ.
Several churches were once again able to open their doors as shelters, offering refuge to evacuees. Trinity United Methodist Church in Warner Robins, Park Ave. United Methodist Church in Valdosta, and Riverside United Methodist Church in Macon were among many UM churches that extended hospitality to those fleeing Hurricane Irma.
Trinity UMC, which itself lost power during the storm, housed approximately 40 people, two cats, and a rabbit and fed about a dozen more people who were without electricity.
“Our first response was, ‘what can we do to help?’” said Rev. Craig Hutto, senior pastor of Trinity UMC. Church leaders knew that the large gym/fellowship hall could be used to keep people safe during the storm, he said, and they wanted to put it to use.
“Our mission is to know Christ, serve Christ, and share Christ. We wanted to be able to serve, help people, and be servants of Christ, and we thought this would be the best way to do that.”
Soldiers with the Georgia Department of Defense’s 5th Brigade called Vineville United Methodist Church home for several days last week. The Macon church housed 50 soldiers and 50 State Troopers for five nights as they provided support during Tropical Storm Irma. The congregation fed them three meals and showed hospitality to those who came to serve and protect.
“We just feel like this is part of what it means to love our neighbor and that’s what we are to be about,” said Dr. Jimmy Asbell, senior pastor of Vineville UMC. “We have a facility that can meet a need and we wanted to use it.”
Along with serving meals at the Methodist Home for Children and Youth, Bishop Lawson Bryan and Sherrill Bryan came by the church and visited with first responders and volunteers and worshiped with the congregation on Sunday, Sept. 10.
“You can’t be alive together if you aren’t with the people,” Dr. Asbell said.
South Georgia’s Conference Pastoral Counselor, Rev. Deborah Wight-Knight, serves on a federally organized task force for Mental Health Crisis Response to victims of Hurricane Irma. Rev. Wight-Knight’s Atlanta-based team is tasked with screening calls from people who are in immediate need for psychotropic medication.
“People from South Florida and parts of Georgia evacuate with the necessities. Yet, in many cases, they are supplied only with limited amounts of their medications for serious conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and ADHD,” she said. “They had plenty for a week, but what happens then?”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), and the Florida Division of Emergency Management work together across state lines to respond to many needs, and faith-based agencies step in to help when needed, Rev. Wight-Knight said.
“We have spent the last week training mental health professionals, pharmacists, distribution centers, and volunteers while responding to hundreds who are without the mental health resources they need for normal daily life, not to mention during a disaster,” she said. “The experience is both heart wrenching and heartwarming. Christ’s presence embodied through so many professionals and volunteers alike never ceases to truly amaze and inspire me. I am grateful that Bishop Bryan and the Annual Conference allow me to represent South Georgia in this way.”
Early Response Teams are equipped to respond in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, and that’s exactly what two ERT teams, one from Central United Methodist Church in Fitzgerald and one from Harvest Church in Kathleen, did after Hurricane Irma swept through the state. The team from Harvest Church was on Tybee Island Saturday, helping clean homes and remove debris.
Ben Hill County sustained a significant amount of wind damage, said Central UMC senior pastor Dr. Rich Wright, and several homeowners were trapped inside their houses by downed trees. The Central UMC ERT team sprang into action Tuesday, cutting limbs, moving logs and branches, and clearing debris.
“They didn’t have time to wait two, three, four days for someone to cut up the tree. They needed our help right now,” Dr. Wright said of the homeowners, most of whom were also without power. “This was a way we can share our faith in Jesus Christ. They had a need we could help meet.”
Throughout the South Georgia Conference, there have been glimpses of ways the Church and its people have been Alive Together in Christ amid the storms. From feeding evacuees to providing cleaning buckets and hygiene kits to removing tree limbs and debris from yards, United Methodists are sharing the love of Christ in meaningful and tangible ways. The congregations of the South Georgia Annual Conference truly are Alive Together!