|United Methodists rally to help Iowa flood survivors |
Debris pulled from flood-damaged homes line Ninth Street in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The massive flooding has displaced some 4,000 families in mostly working-class neighborhoods. UMNS photos by Marta W. Aldrich
By Marta W. Aldrich*
June 27, 2008 | CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (UMNS)
For 30 years, Doug Ward has invested himself in a working-class neighborhood of Cedar Rapids where his family has lived, worked and gone to church—all within a few blocks of each other.
On June 13, he lost all three—his home, his business and his church building—to the rush of floodwaters from nearby Cedar River. Left behind were shoulder-high piles of debris, the stench of dirty water and soggy buildings that may or may not be salvageable.
“They’ve been parts of my life for the last 30 years, and they’re all flooded out,” said Ward, 64, as he stood on the lawn of St. James United Methodist Church, his long-time congregation, just a few blocks from his family’s A&W root beer drive-in.
Doug Ward stands beside his A&W root beer stand that was partially submerged
in the flooding, along with his
home and his church.
“You just trust in God, and he’ll take care of us. It will work out. We take it one day at a time.”
Flood survivors with such multiple losses are not uncommon in hard-hit Cedar Rapids and a special concern of United Methodist Bishop Gregory Palmer. “You imagine that, rightly or wrongly, I could handle one of these, and I could probably bear up under two. But how do you bear up under three: my livelihood, my home and the place that symbolizes my faith?” asked Palmer, of the church’s Iowa Area, as he surveyed flood damage upriver in Charles City on June 23.
In Cedar Rapids, which has suffered the highest concentration of Midwest flooding in recent weeks, some 4,000 homes in mostly blue-collar neighborhoods were submerged after days of heavy rain swelled the Cedar River. The downtown river crested almost 20 feet above flood stage and spilled water over 1,300 blocks. So far, city officials have ordered 300 houses demolished and are determining whether structures in the most flood-prone areas can be rebuilt.
Those include the Time Check neighborhood where Ward lives, works and worships. Other neighborhoods affected also have primarily older homes, and some are in low-income areas. Many residents work in the service or manufacturing sectors at plants such as nearby Quaker Oats or Square D, which also were flooded.
Palmer said the church is focusing on residents who have little resources and are dependent on the government, the church and volunteer organizations for assistance. Like Ward, most residents displaced by the floods don’t have flood insurance.
The bishop praised the work of local pastors who are “heroically and nobly” ministering to their neighborhoods, even as their church buildings and sometimes even their own homes are flooded. Three Cedar Rapids congregations—St. James, Salem and Trinity—have buildings that were heavily damaged.
In the storms’ wake, St. James established a makeshift hospitality center on its front lawn to provide residents with bottled water, health kits, cleaning supplies and food, in addition to pastoral care. “I think we were supposed to be out on the lawn instead of in our building the whole time anyway,” said the Rev. Beth Straw, as she stacked boxes of American Red Cross cleaning kits. “People don’t feel like there is a boundary of walls between us any more.”
Bishop Gregory Palmer and UMCOR representative Sandra Kennedy-Owes
talk with flood survivor Phyllis
Meyer, 81, in Charles City.
About a mile away at the Salem church, the Rev. Linda Bibb was coordinating assistance to help area residents find alternative housing, muck out their homes and apply for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency—a challenge that she likens to “triage.”
“You have to decide what gets done first, so the first thing we did was not (to focus on) our church building,” she said. “… We discover who needs us most in the community and we go there first because the church is not the building.”
In the city’s Taylor neighborhood, Trinity United Methodist Church moved its Matthew 25 ministry hub for economically challenged people to the dry basement of nearby Sharon United Methodist Church. The congregation is reaching out to a neighborhood that was struggling even before the floods hit. “If we ever get a better evangelism moment than this, I don’t know what it’s going to be,” said the Rev. Bob Voels, pastor.
In the week after the waters receded, the district’s United Methodist pastors scattered each morning to walk the streets of the Ellis Park and Time Check neighborhoods to minister to residents as they were allowed to return and inspect their homes. “I’ve gone to a lot of people’s homes,” said Straw. “Some of these people I’ve never met and they will just melt in my arms. They’ll cry and we’ll pray together.”
"I think we were supposed to be out on the lawn instead of in our building the whole time anyway," says the Rev. Beth Straw (left), pastor of St. James United Methodist Church, standing with day care director Cindy Becker.
First United Methodist Church of Marion, which was not damaged in the flooding, quickly became a local command center to coordinate church groups and other volunteers assisting in the cleanup process. The church already has hosted teams from Iowa, Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee and booked more than 30 groups through next March. “Everybody does their piece. This is our piece,” said the Rev. Mike Morgan, Marion’s lead pastor.
Even as the church and volunteer organizations worked to respond to the needs, strong Midwestern downpours returned June 26 to already waterlogged parts of Iowa, Missouri and Illinois, renewing anxiety about more flooding.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief issued an urgent call for more flood buckets filled with cleaning supplies. UMCOR has shipped more than 5,000 flood buckets since June 16 in response to requests from United Methodist annual (regional) conferences in the Midwest, compared with about 4,000 buckets distributed during all of 2007. “We are down to only 200 flood buckets in stock, and we are only two weeks into the hurricane season,” said Kathy Kraiza, who oversees the Sager Brown Depot in Baldwin, La.
A hand-made sign is posted in a flood-damaged neighborhood in Cedar Rapids.
In Iowa, where 70 of the state’s 99 counties have been declared federal disaster areas, UMCOR has issued two $10,000 emergency grants to the church’s annual conference in less than a month—one for a May 25 tornado that flattened much of the rural Parkersburg community and the latest one for the recent floods.
Sandra Kennedy-Owes, UMCOR executive secretary for U.S. disaster response, toured the state’s northeastern communities on June 23 and pledged that the relief organization will partner with the annual conference to provide additional funding, training and consultation as the disaster moves into the long-term recovery stage.
The conference has identified three staging areas to host Volunteers in Mission teams and others in cleanup and rebuilding across Iowa. “The Volunteers in Mission kind of support is beginning to escalate, and we need it to,” said Palmer. “… This will be unfolding for months to come and the disruption in some people’s lives will be evident … for years, but certainly for the next year.”
"If we ever get a better evangelism moment than this, I don't know what it's going to be," says the Rev. Bob Voels, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church.
Palmer expressed his gratitude “for the ways in which we have felt the support and love, tangibly and spiritually, of United Methodists all over the world.” The church’s Western Pennsylvania Conference sent $20,000 in offerings collected at its recent annual conference meeting, along with a grant from its own disaster response fund. “Other conferences have sent or been in touch about how they can partner—whether through Volunteers in Mission or money or all of the above. To all of it, we say yes,” the bishop said.
For information about how to help, visit the Iowa Conference Web site at www.iaumc.org/storms2008. To donate to UMCOR's relief efforts in the Midwest, drop checks in church offering plates or mail them directly to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087. Write Advance #901670 Midwest Flooding Relief on the memo line. Credit card donations can be made by calling (800) 554-8583 or online at www.givetomission.org.
*Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
Audio: Bishop Gregory Palmer
“I’ve been pleased with every response…"
“I want to thank all United Methodists…”
“We’re collaborating regularly and frequently …”
“We have been learning as we’ve gone along…“
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