UCC church turns disaster into an outreach ministry
Written by Jimi Izrael
Some say it was coincidence, but Poquonock (Conn.) Community UCC church historian Bill Allen says that it was no less than the hand of God that rebuilt the church from a pile of debris in 1979, and every year the church bears witness. This month, Poquonock UCC takes its 22nd consecutive disaster relief offering to benefit churches in need. But what could make a local church take up such a gracious ministry?
In October 1979, a tornado touched down in Poquonock and left a splintered and battered church in its wake. The winds took out the entire front of the meeting house, leaving the back offices and classrooms intact. Also intact were the original walls of the church building, which dates back to 1854.
During the 1979 cleanup effort, parishioner Ford Ransom Jr. and then-pastor the Rev. James Silver were moving through the rubble, sifting through the ash to find something salvageable amidst the rubble.
What they found was the church Bible, flipped open to Ezra 5:11: "We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and we are rebuilding the house that was built so many years ago."
If ever there was a sign, this was certainly it, said Ransom and Silver. With a deluge of donations and support, the motivation and the means were there, and plans to raise the church began. Since the effort to rebuild was infused by spiritual mandate, it would be no time until the pews were full again, right? Not so fast.
It seems that there were two factions at Poquonock: traditionalists who wanted to keep the original 1854- built walls intact and a second group who wanted to build a brand new church. Both parties had valid points worthy of full consideration, but the disagreement drew out the rebuilding process for months.
"I guess God was tapping his finger, waiting for something to happen," says Allen. "It didn't happen fast enough, 'cause he sent down a wind and—BOOM!—down went the walls, and that was that."
After that, building began in no time. "God made that decision for us," says Allen. "I am firmly convinced of that."
The church was rebuilt from the ground up, with the old church bible placed on the communion table, open to Ezra 5:11 to remind members of how far they have come, and what they are called to do. And they started their special disaster relief offering.
Each October, Poquonock donates its offering to a church in need. The churches are chosen from the newspaper and other reports, and the amount of the gift varies between $900 and $1,100. Church member Richard Dolliver oversees that committee.
"After 22 years, we still find that there is some church in distress that could benefit from the spiritual uplifting and the practical aid a gift of this sort can lend," says Dolliver.
The past recipients have included a Catholic church, a synagogue and a mosque.
The recipient of this year's gift is Zion UCC in Junction City, Kan., where a fire from a lightning strike decimated the church. "The loss is just awesome," says the Rev. Ken Barnhart, pastor of Zion UCC. "Pews, pulpit, hymnals: all of our worship resources were burned up in the fire. You just have no idea of the loss of things you have been taking for granted for 100 years."
"The folks at Poquonock chose to take lemons and make lemonade," he adds. "This has been an example to us and, when we're back on our feet, this will call us to be more responsive to other folks as well."
Retired pastor James Silver, who was inspired by that scriptural revelation 22 years ago, says he hopes that other churches will follow suit.
"We received so much during our time of need,"says Silver, "and we just felt led by God to pass the blessing on."