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By Kara Witherow, Editor
The Southwest District bore the brunt of Hurricane Michael’s wrath in Georgia as the storm slammed into the area last Wednesday afternoon and evening as a Category 3 hurricane.
Michael brought 115 mph winds and downed trees and power lines throughout the region. Homes, churches, and businesses were damaged and destroyed. Cotton, peanut, and pecan crops, which were not yet fully harvested, were decimated.
But through it all, many United Methodists remain grateful and hopeful. Churches across the Southwest District gathered for worship Sunday, many without power and water. They shared God’s hope and praised Him for His protection, provision, and promises.
“Hurricane Michael can’t stop God’s people from Warwick and Warwick UMC from gathering in worship and fellowship to hear His word! We may not have power or water but where two or three are gathered … Buildings do not matter,” Sandra Fuller posted on Facebook Sunday morning as Warwick UMC, which lost its steeple in the storm, gathered outside to worship. “We BELONG to God and when we BELIEVE in Him we will BECOME the people He is calling us to be.”
The storm’s impact
Hurricane Michael’s impact is widespread and far reaching, and it caused damage that will last generations, officials say.
Nobody in Colquitt was spared by Hurricane Michael, said Rev. Scott Stanfill, pastor of Colquitt United Methodist Church.
“Everybody has trees down and lots of folks have damage to cars and homes,” he said. “Nobody got away unscathed. Nobody is unaffected.”
The church’s roof is damaged, with shingles torn off down to the plywood. Water seeped through into the church, and on Thursday there was standing water and debris in nearly every room in the church. Chunks of insulation littered the floor, and trees were down all over the parsonage’s yard.
The damage is everywhere, Rev. Stanfill said, and will take months to repair.
“There’s so much damage, but all of that can be fixed. It’s going to be a marathon and not a sprint to get this cleaned up.”
Despite the overwhelming losses, he sees God at work as neighbors work side by side to help one another.
“Everybody’s doing what everybody does – rallying together and helping others. Nobody’s complaining. I haven’t heard any ask, ‘why me?’ We just know we’re in it together and we’re going to get through it together,” Rev. Stanfill said. “Even in the midst of all the destruction we can see the hidden hand of God at work in all of it, bringing hope out of despair and life out of death. That’s our faith.”
More than 90 members of the Casa de Vida y Paz congregation sheltered at the church to stay safe when Hurricane Michael tore through Bainbridge last week.
Safely inside, the congregation watched as trees swayed, buckled, and broke outside.
“Nothing touched the church. Not even a small branch. God took care of us so well,” said lay leader Jaime Gallaga.
Since the storm hit, the church has continued to shelter those who had extensive damage to their homes. Gallaga had several trees fall on his house, and his stepson lost his home when four trees fell across it, but the congregation feels grateful that they are safe.
“We’re happy because we see how God takes care of us,” Gallaga said. “We agree that material things we can replace.”
Albany residents have become all too familiar with disasters lately, having experienced destructive storms in January 2017 and now in Hurricane Michael’s path. This storm was more far reaching and destructive than the straight-line wind storm of early 2017, said Laura Haygood, Albany First United Methodist Church’s director of missions and outreach.
“Albany was as prepared as we could have been for Hurricane Michael, but this one has had a horrendous impact on Albany, destroying homes, power, water systems, and cell service,” she said. “Many church members have had major damage to their homes and property, especially those who are farmers, where the damage was prolific.”
People are tired, overwhelmed, and at a loss as to what to do, she said, but they are grateful to be alive and know that possessions can be replaced.
The challenges ahead are great, as are the needs, Haygood said, especially since many in the Albany area had just recovered and rebuilt from last year’s storms. But they are strong and have hope.
“Now we pick each other up, rebuild, and point people to the One who calms the storms. Neighbors are helping neighbors, God is at work, and churches are stacking hands to spread hope in these hard times,” she said. “Albany is resilient and we are proud of our community. Pray for us, send money, and bring a work team – we’ll put you to work.”
Everyone in Donalsonville is feeling the impact of Hurricane Michael. The rural farming community, nestled between Dothan, Ala. and Bainbridge, Ga., was hit especially hard by the category 3 storm.
“The damage looks like a tornado, with trees snapped in half, like toothpicks. It looks like devastation,” said Rev. Nate Lehman, pastor of Friendship United Methodist Church. “They’re calling it ground zero here, but to tell you the truth, it could have been worse. This community is strong and everybody loves their neighbors and they’re all trying to help each other out.”
The parsonage sustained some damage, there are trees down everywhere, the carport is torn off, and the roof needs to be tarped, but the church, while covered in trees, is in remarkably good condition, he said. Many church members lost their homes, their cars, and their crops.
“There’s going to be a long-term impact because Donalsonville is the center of business for this community. Everything is closed and damaged. Farmers lost fields full of crops. There’s going to be a big impact on this community.”
But, he said, the congregation and the community are going to rally and help each other as much as they can. He sees light even in this dark time because people are helping one another.
“Hope is seen in the little girl who was helping bag food and hand it out to people. Hope is seen in neighbors who are grilling food from their fridge and freezer and sharing it with others. You see hope in your neighbors, that’s where you see it.”
Adding to the devastation in Seminole County, members of Reynolds Chapel United Methodist Church have been told they will be without power for about eight weeks.
Located on the Georgia-Florida border at Lake Seminole, Reynolds Chapel UMC, in Donalsonville, was hit hard by Hurricane Michael. Huge trees blocked roads and driveways and church members were stuck inside their homes. Rev. Tammy Fincannon, pastor of Reynolds Chapel UMC, attempted to drive from house to house to account for each congregant, but was unable to get far because of downed trees. Undeterred, she continued on foot until she reached each member and made sure they were safe.
"I wanted to lay eyes on you. I wanted to make sure you were ok," Rev. Fincannon told a church member when asked why she had walked to her home. "I care."
Trained and ready to help
In the past two years, South Georgia United Methodists have readied themselves to respond to disasters by being trained as Early Response Team Members.
“For the past two years, having gone 25 years without a major disaster in our area, we’ve had a series of hurricanes, tornadoes, and straight-line winds,” said South Georgia Bishop R. Lawson Bryan. “All the many ways our people have volunteered to be trained means that we are better equipped right now to respond. It’s what our people have done over the past two years that has prepared us to be able to respond well now.”
Nashville United Methodist Church’s ERT team spent Saturday in Bainbridge, clearing trees off of houses and out of yards.
The same day, Pierce Chapel United Methodist Church’s ERT team worked to cut and clear trees from Cooks Union United Methodist Church and Harvest Church’s ERT team worked at Friendship UMC in Donalsonville.
How to help now
Bishop Bryan, who visited the Southwest District and met with pastors and laity Friday, said that in the midst of devastating loss he saw resilient people who share a love for their community.
“These people not only love their church, but they love their community, so they have a sense of being together in recovery,” he said. “It’s not just one individual who has been affected, but everybody, so the response is coming from everybody as a community. The hope comes as you see how they are helping each other.”
South Georgia congregations and individuals are being asked to pray for those affected.
They’re also invited to give financially to South Georgia’s disaster relief fund. Monetary gifts will be extremely important during the response to the affected areas. Special offerings to help with storm recovery needs may be sent to the South Georgia Conference Storm Recovery efforts. Individuals may give in one of three ways: