Responding to Natural disasters—Earthquakes, Flooding, Tornadoes, Hurricanes
By Nancy Staigmiller
“I never understood why people would say that it's such an honor to be a volunteer. I have always questioned that way of thinking about volunteerism…” These words were from a 19 year old Japanese college student volunteering at the Japan Common Global Mission Sendai Emmaus Center. She continues, “Now I am coming to realize what this whole experience is about. It seems somehow that working with others in this way is actually a blessing and that I am receiving so much through this experience. Being able to work with others is a blessing. Being able to hear how each of you reflected on the day has caused me to think deeply about many things. I feel like a week I spend here is equivalent to ten years of what I experience back home… I feel that this experience is really allowing me to mature as an individual.” She finally found the words to unlock her heart; “In that sense I feel honored to be here, and to be receiving so much through this experience. I guess I can identify a little bit with the honorific language. I AM grateful to be here…” She had put into words what each were feeling; gratefulness to be able to spend the days with the people of Shichigo – people who had lost so much, and yet were trying to start anew.
This story comes from a blog by Jeffrey Mensendiek of the Sendai Emmaus Center for youth activities in Japan. He was born to missionary parents in Japan and continues his work in Japan where the challenges are most difficult following the Japan earthquake/tsunami. He is in partnership with the Japan UCC churches and Global Ministries.
These words shared from ‘across the waters’ offered a nudge needed for a Mission Interpreter in the Montana/Northern Wyoming UCC Conference to take action. Minot, ND had experienced massive flooding in July, 2011. Being true/close neighbors to Minot, it seemed essential in the minds of Montana volunteers to take the drive to Minot for a week of disaster service. It was easy to access UCC.org information regarding UCC Volunteer Ministries’ urgent service opportunities. Eight folks from four local churches in Montana were able to answer the call. With only one man and seven women, organizational leaders of the Mennonite Disaster Service seemed surprised that women could (or would) do power washing and interior demolition, as well as sanitizing with spray for mold control. These three techniques were all jobs inside the shells of previously comfortable and beloved homes of a variety of citizens. Profound feelings emerged in the minds of the Montana volunteers while driving in vast neighborhoods destroyed by water. Living together in a Minot UCC church for 6 days, sharing energies and humbling celebrations that a small group can make a dent in disaster recovery evolved into a valuable experience. Meeting some of the home owners, and even working alongside them added a special touch. Montanans were thankful for the united and uniting experience and thankful that Christians can join in service with our brothers and sisters in Christ. (United Church of Christ has partnered with the Mennonite Disaster Service in many US natural disasters.)
The Congregational United Church of Christ in Minot, ND served as host church for volunteers from Montana UCC churches as well as hosting many Mennonites from Canada and the US. During August and September, interdenominational groups came each week since early July to help ‘muck out’ and clean up homes in this western northern US city. The floods imposed extreme hardship on this lively city with both a state college and USAFB in an area not unusually affected by flooding. The minister and congregation of this Congregational Minot UCC Church responded by sharing their facility for housing of volunteers each week, Sunday night through Saturday mornings. Much to the surprise of the all volunteers, there had been three showers installed at the church facility. (Mucking out homes necessitates daily showers.) Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) served as coordinators and supplied plentiful food, supplemented by weekly volunteer group donations. Volunteer groups supplied the cook. Work was hard and sleeping went well on foam mattresses provided in two separate sleeping quarters of the church. Volunteers were asked by the UCC Volunteer Ministries to individually donate $50 to the Minot local church as a donation to their hospitality. The Minot local church decided to offer 60% of these gifts directly to their own flood survivors, consisting of about 1/4 of the congregants. The other monies are retained for use as needs arise. In Minot 4,200 homes were destroyed, along with another 4,000 in the wider river valley. Some say it the disaster compares to Katrina.
One of the Minot UCC church members had gone to serve in Louisiana Katrina after effects. He and his wife helped in UCC Katrina volunteer service. Now his older home was flooded in Minot. He never asked for help, but now it became this man’s turn to receive help from his brothers and sisters in Christ. Currently he found his family receiving help via Mennonite Disaster Services yoked with the Montana UCC volunteers as three people power washed throughout the inside of his own Minot home. He would have never imagined that he would be on the receiving end of natural disaster, now receiving encouragement and the same hope he had previously offered to others. The pastor of the church explained that one third of his church membership’s homes had been significantly affected by the flood. All the affected families of Minot are now living in alternative settings at this time as cold winter approaches, but the work continues as MDS ‘buttons up’ some of the abandoned homes. Work will continue as volunteers come forth. Please consider this ministry in one of our northern cities in urgent need of help. It will likely continue over the next three years.
A joy of service is making connections with God’s people in circumstances outside of our normal daily living. As participants in local churches, perhaps too often it may be a little difficult to ‘think outside our box’ of our usual circumstances. We can hear and read stories from across our world regarding the struggles of God’s people on earth, but up front and close isn’t always the easiest to experience. Volunteer service in our own country is something more easily attainable. All eight participants from the UCC MNWC in the recent trip to Minot flooded neighborhoods said they would definitely do it again. The thing that is interesting is that the work is not done in one shot, or visit. The recovery time is ongoing and long term presenting itself in different phases over the next three years. In Minot, two of the Montana women shared their brown bag lunches with a homeowner one day. The lady had walked some distance to check on her tiny home. She was trying to save all inside trim, bathroom fixtures, and doors because of her financial concerns. The volunteer group was touched by her devastation and concerns. The MDS coordinator suggested we invite her for supper with us at our temporary church home. She accepted eagerly, and she was surprised when the volunteer group all donated money to cover the cost of her sanitizing spray supplies. The special interaction with the homeowners provides ‘the icing on the cake’ –hands and hearts uniting through God’s love.
PS: This UCC response has been the only UCC response to Minot in 3 months, but the Mennonites from Canada and the US have been there each week. “Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you!” (A great hymn) - Who will take the hint?
Back to the Japanese disaster- CGM Missionary, Jeffrey Mensendiek, spoke via cell phone from Japan to members of the UCC Board of the Wider Church Ministries in April. Something that stuck was his comments about the need in Japan for volunteers to help lift the mood of the disaster survivors. He said that Americans come with a lighter spirit which can bring joy through laughter transferring to hope for the heart, mind, and soul. Jeffrey suggested that American help would definitely be welcome in Japan when it becomes appropriate.
Creator God, We keep in our prayers all our brothers and sisters in all nations affected by natural disasters. Receive our deep sympathy for their loss and devastation. We stand in solidarity during this difficult time in their nations’ and community affairs. Also, we keep in our prayers the people who extend assistance to those affected by the disasters. We know the tasks are enormous. In the name of the God of all people- Amen