As the point-person for disaster response for the United Church of Christ's national offices, Zach Wolgemuth has quickly delved into recovery efforts by the church and its partners, both domestically and globally. In his two months on the job, Wolgemuth has witnessed how the millions of dollars donated for relief work from across the UCC are feeding hungry families and rebuilding once-destroyed homes.
Through acts of kindness and generosity in the aftermath of disasters, Wolgemuth has even seen cultures in Japan, once closed to Christian volunteers out of skepticism, become welcoming communities.
"The community has completely changed and they're open and welcoming. Those barriers and stereotypes have broken down through simple acts of service," said Wolgemuth, who joined UCC Disaster Ministries in January.
This weekend, he's off to another location touched by a natural disaster. Wolgemuth is spending three days, March 26 through March 28, in Joplin, Mo., to meet with partner organizations to assess the recovery effort in the three years since a tornado crippled the area.
The visit is a chance to "work with our partners there on the ground, and to make sure they're happy with the way things are going," said Wolgemuth, who spent eight years as associate director of Church of the Brethren Disaster Ministries. "Sometimes as you go along, the needs change and you have to rewrite the plan. I don't expect that this late because we're far along in the process."
May 22 marks the three-year anniversary of the catastrophic, mile-wide twister that tore through Joplin, killing 158 people, injuring 1,150 more, and causing $2.8 billion in damage. Even after the initial recovery effort wound down, the UCC has maintained volunteer relief opportunities for mission trips.
Through the end of this summer, a partnership between the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will bring volunteers to the area to complete reconstruction of damaged homes and buildings. Some of the volunteer groups are Disciples churches and some are individual UCC members, Wolgemuth said, but the common thread is, "There's been great appreciation expressed for the fact the UCC and Disciples continue to send volunteers to the area well after the tornado, even though it isn't in the news like it once was."
Earlier this month, Wolgemuth spent 11 days in Asia, witnessing firsthand how financial donations made to One Great Hour of Sharing are being put to use in the aftermath of an earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and a typhoon in the Philippines.
"I think it's important for the church to know that not only has the support of OGHS dollars done a lot of work, people there still need prayer and support – the solidarity – for our brothers and sisters in Japan," Wolgemuth said.
The earthquake struck March 11, 2011, and triggered a tsunami that hammered the coast of Japan and damaged a nuclear power plant which caused a meltdown. There are still more than 200,000 Japanese living in temporary shelters because of the level of radiation and fallout from the Fukushima nuclear plant. OGHS donations have helped provide equipment to test for radiation in water and soil.
Thankfully, the United Church of Christ-Japan, a partner church of the UCC in the recovery effort, is helping keep families as safe as possible.
"That's one thing the United Church of Christ-Japan has been doing a lot of good work on — things like thyroid testing, or providing fresh-air camps for kids to go outside and play around free from radiation," Wolgemuth said. "That was supported though Global Ministries and One Great Hour of Sharing."
After leaving Japan, Wolgemuth visited with partner organizations in the Philippines — mostly with the United Church of Christ-Philippines — touring the regions hit hardest by Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Typhoon Yolanda). UCC-Philippines has been engaged in the relief effort almost since day one by providing emergency supplies in affected communities.
"They've got a lot of good relationships in the villages and community," Wolgemuth said. "It was clear to me as we went around that the coordinators had established long-term relationships in these places, probably before Yolanda hit and certainly afterward."
Typhoon Haiyan made landfall on Nov. 8, 2013, and Disaster Ministries acted quickly in assisting the recovery effort, while UCC members, congregations and conference contributed more than $750,000 to support thousands of displaced Filipinos.
Recently, the UCC-Philippines' work has transitioned from disaster response to livelihood recovery. For example, the UCC-Philippines is purchasing new, locally-built boats for fishermen to replace ones damaged by the storm. In turn, the fishermen can return to the water and gather food.
One of the telling stories from Wolgemuth's time in the Philippines is the UCC-Philippines' willingness to help anyone in need of relief. An elderly woman approached relief workers and asked if she could receive supplies even though she wasn't a UCC-Philippines member. The following day, workers made sure to pack enough food and water to give to an entire village.
"That type of witness says a lot," Wolgemuth said, "when you're not just looking after your own."