The Rev. Robert Craig spends much of his ministry meeting the needs of others. He serves as the Coordinator of the Disaster Response Ministry of the Nashville Episcopal Area (Tennessee and Memphis Conferences) and as the Executive Director of Reelfoot Rural Ministries in Obion, Tennessee.
In this conversation, Craig shares how our support of disaster response and other relief ministries, especially through the United Methodist Committee on Relief, provides more than supplies for those who are suffering. Our aid is also a sign of hope. Through our work and donations, we share with others the hope we have in Jesus Christ during their most difficult times.
The Rev. Robert Craig
- Read a brief bio of the Rev. Craig.
- Explore news from the Disaster Response and Recovery ministry, Nashville Episcopal Area.
- Find out what amazing things Reelfoot Rural Ministries is doing.
- Learn about the Nashville Episcopal Area.
UMCOR: United Methodist Committee on Relief
- Learn more about how United Methodists Respond to Disaster and how you can help.
- Watch a brief video overview of UMCOR's disaster relief work.
Popular stories at UMC.org
- Watch: United Methodist Response in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria
- Read: “You did it for me”: Serving others in times of tragedy
- Watch: Turning to God in Days of Trouble
- Read: Top four worst, and best, ways to help after a disaster
- Read: How can I help with disaster relief?
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This episode posted on June 4, 2019.
Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
Today’s guest is United Methodist pastor the Rev. Robert Craig. When Rev. Craig recently led chapel here in the offices of United Methodist Communications, he talked about his ministry in disaster relief and how the support we give to our United Methodist Committee on Relief provides more than just supplies. It also represents hope, the hope of Jesus Christ that we are able to offer one another in our most difficult times.
I think you’ll like this reframing of what it means to offer help and hope, one relationship at a time.
Joe: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Robert Craig: Thanks, Joe. I’m glad to be here.
Joe: As the Coordinator of the Disaster Response Ministry of the Nashville Episcopal Area and the Executive Director of Reelfoot Rural Ministries in Obion, Tennessee…
Robert Craig: That’s correct.
Joe: …which I understand is in the northwest corner of Tennessee, you spend a great deal of your ministry serving those who are in need. So what originally drew you to those kinds of ministries and what continues to energize you about them today?
Robert Craig: When I initially kind of surrendered to the call to ministry I was a student pastor and I went to seminary and just thought that was the role that I was gonna follow. But it was in seminary really probably when I started to really have this call to servant ministry more realized. It was particularly through an immersion experience into the border area about a year into my seminary time. I went with other classmates, and for about two and a half weeks we went into the northern part of Mexico and then traveled the road that migrants would typically travel as they attempt to come into the United States, seeking a different life for themselves or their family. And so it was in those communities where churches and community came together to feed and to house and to offer a cool drink of water or a warm meal or just a kind word of affirmation to the migrant. I think that’s where my passion for being in service to others really started to take hold in my life. And so it’s been from that time, several years ago now, that really kind of started directing my life and my ministry. And it’s just followed a long road of international trips and domestic trips and then work in my local community as well. And it’s now led to the place where I find myself serving day in and day out at Reelfoot Rural Ministries and then also as the coordinator for Disaster Response.
Joe: How does your ministry with Reelfoot continue to draw you into those ministries?
Robert Craig: I’m fed by the variety of lives that I come in contact with. Their stories mixing with our stories and how God brings us across one another’s path for a short period of time or some in long-term relationships. It is in the relationship where I’m most fed. It’s being real with the people allowing their guard hopefully to come down, and mine as well. And so where real relationship can form, and I believe where real ministry can happen. So my soul is fed when relationships are formed and there’s progress made in a life.
Joe: And there’s something really sacred about that heart-to-heart, spirit-to-spirit kind of soul-to-soul connection that happens between people. It sounds like you get to experience that fairly frequently.
Robert Craig: Yes. And as Executive Director unfortunately a lot of my time is spent with meeting with donors or churches or working on this grant or that grant, making sure that all of the human resources of the staff and volunteers are taken care of. So I do lose some of that. But there’s still enough of those moments that keep me fed. And so I blend a little bit of my business background that I had just prior to coming into the ministry, also with this call of serving and being in relationship with others. It’s nicely meshed and I thoroughly enjoy it.
Joe: So you get to facilitate some of those connections even if you’re not the one personally making them?
Robert Craig: I get to hear the stories and I get to meet the people that the stories are about, but I’m not necessarily the point person that initiates all those relationships anymore.
Joe: You’re also the Disaster Response Coordinator for the episcopal area, the Tennessee Annual Conference and the Memphis Annual Conference which makes up Middle Tennessee West Tennessee and Western Kentucky. How did you get involved in that?
Robert Craig: Well, you talk to anybody that’s involved in disaster response ministry, most all of them will tell you they got into disaster response ministry because a disaster happened to them or to someone near to them. And that’s really what happened to me. Soon after graduating from seminary I was reappointed in the same county where I’d been for quite some time but at a larger church with more resources and a little further away. A tornado came through and it destroyed the church where I really called my Methodist home because I’d spent the majority of my Methodist life there. I was married there. I taught Sunday school there, volunteered with youth in that church. And that church was destroyed by a tornado along with several lives that were a part of that community and that church were taken. And so it was in those immediate days that I found myself being the United Methodist Committee on Relief, but I didn’t know it. I kept waiting on them to show up. And when they did I said, “Where have you been?” And they said, “Well, what have you been doing?” And I told them. “Well, I helped get water to this neighborhood and food to this neighborhood, and I’ve help facilitate this or that exercise.” And they said, “And you are United Methodist?” And I said, “I am.” And they told me, “Then UMCOR’s been here since you got here.” And so it really started there. And so that led into helping to facilitate the recovery from that tornado, which took a little over a year for us to really kind of restore homes and lives as best we could as a community. And it just has grown from there, from just being involved in my local community to now being involved around the 2 conferences and the jurisdiction when needed.
Joe: You came to chapel a couple of weeks ago and led chapel here at United Methodist Communications. And one of the things you talked about was the United Methodist Committee on Relief, or UMCOR as we United Methodists sometimes call it, represents for many members of the church the place to give. When a disaster happens somewhere we can give money towards that. And we know a hundred percent of the money that we give is gonna go to the people that are in need. But when you were here, you taught me something a little bit different. And you said a lot of times UMCOR represents not just a resource as in money, but it represents hope.
Robert Craig: Well, if you can imagine your home being flooded or a tornado blowing it away, everything really is destroyed or lost. And when that is your place of safety, that’s the place that you lay your head each night and you don’t have that any longer, it seems that everything that is at the root of what is normal for you is gone. To know where you’re going to sleep, from where your food might come, those things become of vital importance. And in the early days after a disaster the shock for a survivor is overwhelming. And trying to think about those basics, let alone trying to decide if we have enough insurance or if these resources or those resources are going to help me recover, you’re just try to think about how I’m going to feed my family, where I’m going to find clean, dry clothes and where will we sleep. And it is in those early days when the shock is just overwhelming, when UMCOR, the United Methodist Church, offers a place of shelter or a resource, that is food or water or clothing or cleaning kit or a hygiene kit with soap and a wash cloth—those small things help restore normalcy to a life that seems extremely abnormal in those moments. And beyond that it is the person or people who are offering resources coming in, showing that they care, listening to the survivor’s story and caring, loving and helping them find a way forward. That’s when…. Those moments of what were previously seen to be absolute hopelessness become more hope-filled because of the small acts of people that are led by the love of Jesus in their lives. For me that’s how hope begins to be restored. And anyone who’s been through a disaster knows it’s not a quick process to heal from the emotional or the physical loss, but in that long process to have those who partner with you and walk alongside you in those immediate difficult days, but in those difficult days that follow in the long process. It is in those moments of offering love and resources and hope that lives are restored and I believe the kingdom is strengthened, and that God’s glorified.
Joe: The people on the ground that are kind of representing UMCOR in the midst of a disaster are not professionals for the most part.
Robert Craig: That’s correct. Just like in that first disaster of which I was a part I asked, “Well where has UMCOR been?” And they told me, “Well, if you’ve been here, UMCOR’s been there.” That’s the same in every disaster. When the United Methodist people respond in the wake of disasters, then the United Methodist Church is represented. UMCOR is present. Now UMCOR will follow up with assistance through training or through financial or material resources that they have available. But if you spend any time in the disaster world you’ll hear this: The survivor owns the disaster. So if I lose my home that’s my disaster to own. And if someone tries to take that away from me, then I am not being empowered in this disaster. We walk alongside a survivor, but we don’t do things for the survivor. We help them by letting them have the choices of how things will be rebuilt, refurbished, replenished, those kinds of things. So it’s not that people from UMCOR will come in and fix everything. They will come in and undergird and hold folks up as they help their community recover. And so it’s in those resources of training training…. Sometimes it’s personnel and in material and financial resources, that a community is helped to respond and to rebuild following a disaster.
Joe: Part of the other thing I think I hear you saying, and I want to clarify too, is that people that come to volunteer, the people that are part of it that are representing UMCOR in the middle of a disaster, part of their goal is to build relationship, person-to-person contact. It’s not just about the resources. I know I did youth ministry for a really long time…
Robert Craig: God bless you.
Joe: …and took kids on mission trips, right? And we would go on these mission trips. And connection happens very often between an older person and a bunch of 14-year-olds. And it’s a beautiful thing to watch. And I think I hear you saying something similar happens in this.
Robert Craig: Well, in any team of people that may respond, there is a huge need for a survivor to be able to tell their story. So if everyone on a team is focused on task only, then survivor gets left out of the picture. And you’re right. Hope is restored when relationships are built and someone is emotionally and spiritually nourished to a point where they feel that healing. They know that healing of hope being restored. And sure, having a roof put back on their house or having their house mucked out after a flood is part of that healing process. But if that physical task to the home is the only thing we’re doing, then we’re leaving out the spiritual and emotional part. And we’re doing a disservice for the work that we’re called to as the church. And you’re right. It is absolutely vital that the relationship be the most important thing. The task will get done, but the task of spiritual and emotional care and relationship-building and hope restoration takes place in the person-to-person relationships.
Joe: It’s not an either or.
Robert Craig: In fact, in an early response team there are different jobs that are identified on one of those short-term emergency response teams that would go out. One of those people is called a listener. And that listener is the person who is constantly in tune with the survivor. Maybe not sitting by their side 24/7, but they’re aware of the survivor and where they are during the day, during the process of the work that’s being done by the team, and they’re just kind of keeping a check, a mental check on how that survivor is doing and interacting and if they seem to be removing themselves from all the people around or if they seem to be not doing so well spiritually, emotionally, they’ll at least interact with them and see how can we help in that regard because that is just as important as the work that’s there to be done to the house
Joe: Without breaking any confidences, are there stories that leap out at you of examples of the ways people’s lives have been changed because of the work that you’ve been part of?
Robert Craig: I, too, am a recovering youth pastor and led several youth teams and the rebuilding efforts after disasters around the southeast or and Midwest. Some of the lives that I’ve seen changed most drastically aren’t the lives of survivors, but it’s the lives of the youth. I mean, I’ve been out of it long enough now there are very productive citizens in the country and very productive members in the local United Methodist Churches because of the work that they’ve done of offering hope to someone in a situation where hope had been lost. Their lives were transformed. They were shaped to take lives of service. Some have gone into the military, some into the chaplaincy or the ministry, some into the medical field, some into the mission field. So without breaking confidences…I wouldn’t want to talk about them specifically, but there are several that are doing…. And I tell them when I meet with them occasionally now. They give me great hope for our world to come, knowing that there are those kinds of individuals still seeking to serve and love God’s people in their time of need whether it’s in a medical emergency or a military emergency or a disaster.
Joe: How have you grown? Have you seen your faith develop as you’ve been involved in these kinds of ministries?
Robert Craig: I think I’ve always been mostly an optimistic person. But now I think I find myself far more optimistic just because when difficult circumstances come into my own life personally with family or friends or ministry partners, I don’t tend to be overwhelmed because I know that the love and grace of God is present, has gone before and is there now. And so I think for me my faith is steadfast because of the work that I’ve been able to be a part of and the work that I’ve seen the people of the church be about in restoring hope in difficult times. When there’s a need God provides a way for that need to be met through God’s people.
Joe: If someone lived in an area where a team was being built what encouragement would you give them to get involved and be a part of a disaster relief team?
Robert Craig: When people ask me about disaster response ministry I tell them it’s not for everybody. You do see sadness. And for some folks that’s a little overwhelming. But for the most part there is a place for most everyone in some aspect of disaster response ministry because we need people who are helping prepare, whether that’s in the form of assembling materials like cleaning buckets or tornado kits, or hygiene kits. We need people who help fund the ministry that goes out to be done. You need folks who are actually doing the hands-on work and it takes the entire church to make all those happen. And so while they might feel like, being on the ground with the disaster response ministry is not for them, there is a place for ‘em. But I tell folks: Disasters happen, unfortunately, to just about everybody at some point in their life. There are lots of different kinds of disasters. But God is in the business of restoring hope and rebuilding lives following disasters. And if we’re to be people of God, followers of Jesus, then our work is to be about that work of rebuilding and restoring. So if we’re going to live into our call as a follower of Christ, that’s what we need to be about in a really great way. To rebuild hope and to restore people to wholeness is to be involved in disaster response ministry. It will bring you joy at times. It will make you sad at times. But it will fill your soul to the uttermost because of the work of the spirit when we go and be the hands and feet of Christ and represent the church in those moments.
Joe: I spent a few minutes researching Reelfoot Rural Ministries. And I just want to spend a couple of second talking about that because I could not believe all of the things that are happening in that ministry from ministry with kids in a day care and some senior work and meeting physical needs of people. Can you tell me a little more about that or what happens at Reelfoot Rural Ministries?
Robert Craig: Reelfoot is a ministry that began nearly 56 years ago now from the vision and obedience of two Methodist lay women who saw children who had need for a better education, for food, for clothing. And from that groundbreaking work that they did in the local community in Lake County, Tennessee it has grown to a ministry that serves some 5,000 households a year in a variety of ways. Like you said, our main focus points are with senior citizens through dental care and home restoration to help them stay in their homes longer so that those homes are safer and more accessible, more secure. And, too, our focus is on children in a variety of ways. There is a day care, but we do a lot of other things with children. We do seasonal ministries with children, like, in the Christmas season or in the back-to-school season, but we offer feeding for children throughout the year, backpack program, a lot of those things. We have dental and vision clinics for uninsured and underinsured people. And we have a grocery ministry where we feed some 300 households a month. We also have emergency services ministry where we help people when they need to relocate because of fire, flood or some kind of disaster in their life, but also in domestic assault relocations. We have household items, furnishings and we help folks. We set up a new house if they’ve been relocated. And then there is some financial assistance, although the dollars don’t go nearly as far as they need to. But our main focus through all those ministries and ministries that reveal themselves when different needs arise, is just to be in relationship with folks because our motto is to restore hope one relationship at a time. And as we build relationships and those barriers go down, respect is earned, trust is earned. Then we can really discern what need is there for that individual, for that family, and how can we not just meet that immediate need of the moment, but how can we help them get to a place where they are more self-sufficient. And so our goal is to build relationships and to restore hope by offering opportunities in the future.
Joe: Restore hope one relationship at a time. I love that.
Robert Craig: It’s what our two founding ladies started. It’s how they started. And I think it’s how we are going to continue to live into the future. If we’re going to be effective it has to be in relationships first and foremost because there’ll be days when the dollars are short or when the food pantry is low. But we can always be there with the love of Christ offering that in the relationships that we build.
Joe: And my guess is in almost every community there are those organizations that we can plug into no matter where we live. Even if we don’t there are informal things that we can do for the neighbor next door or across the street or the one that needs just a little bit more time, a little bit of attention, and needs a loving relationship.
Robert Craig: Absolutely. If I’ve learned anything in my years in ministry so far it’s that we all too often get caught up serving in a lot of different areas where the church might reveal, where we have a need for a volunteer here or there might be an agency in town that needs volunteers and as a director of an agency like that, volunteers are vital. They stretch our dollars. They make ministry possible. But when we get involved in those areas of ministry sometimes we lose focus of the people right down the street or across the street or next door. There’s an older single lady, or there’s that older gentleman that can’t mow his yard anymore. There are lots of things we can do to share the love of Christ with the folks right down the street. So we can be agents of hope in regular everyday life, not just in the midst of disaster or in financial or spiritual stress. There are neighbors right down the road that have a need. And I think we might bring a smile to God’s face when we take a moment to realize those neighbors’ needs and try to meet ‘em.
Joe: And it’s an expression of our faith. We sometimes compartmentalize those things, but our shared United Methodist and Wesleyan heritage teaches us that those things that we do to serve another are also deeds of grace, ways that we put ourselves in a place where God can do amazing things in and through us, and feed us as we’re helping to feed someone else and give them the hope that they need. I have one last question that I ask every guest of Get Your Spirit in Shape, and that is: What do you do to help keep your spirit in shape?
Robert Craig: Well, first and foremost, I guess, is…. My wife is Episcopalian and so we share together the Book of Common Prayer and Devotional with the Morning Prayer ritual. And so that’s something that’s daily and I think is beneficial for our relationship together and individually. But beyond that walks around the neighborhood, but runs are a great way to clear my head and just kind of let God speak and if I don’t have headphones in I can listen. So I leave those home most of the time. And then this time of year the days are getting longer and a great way that I really like to connect with God is through nature, whether that’s taking walks or hikes. Sometimes that a walk on a golf course pushing a golf cart and not doing real well hitting a golf ball, but at least getting in some of God’s beauty and just some silent time alone. And so it is in silence where I am probably most edified with my relationship with Christ. And so I seek silence as best I can. And when those moments of silence aren’t there because I’m on the road a lot with the jobs that I now hold, I commit at least a tenth of that road time to something that benefits my spiritual journey, whether it is radio off and thinking and praying and listening, or it’s listening to sermons, books or now that I’ve been introduce to this podcast I’ve been listening to that for the last several weeks. And thoroughly enjoying that as well.
Joe: I want to thank you for this time, but also for your ministry. And I’m gonna steal your line of restoring hope one relationship at a time. What a beautiful thing. Thank you so much.
Robert Craig: Thanks for the opportunity, Joe.
That was the Rev. Robert Craig, Coordinator of the Disaster Response Ministry of the Nashville Episcopal Area of The United Methodist Church. To learn more, go to umc.org/podcasts and search for this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape titled “Restoring Hope.” On that page you will find links to help you learn about Rev. Craig, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, and Reelfoot Rural Ministries.
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Thanks for listening, downloading and subscribing. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.