A Disaster Ministries team from the United Church of Christ is traveling this week (Sept. 20-26) to parts of the country ravaged by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, to get an up close and personal look at the mission work in which local churches are involved, and to plot long-term recovery plans. It's part of the UCC effort to love stricken communities in Texas and Florida back to life.
The Rev. Mary Schaller Blaufuss and Zach Wolgemuth are heading to Texas first for four days, and then to Florida in this pastoral/planning mission, to better help church communities be prepared going forward, setting up response networks, and to see what type of ministry work will be needed for long-term recovery from Hurricane Harvey.
"We want to help those in need understand how to access the resources available to them, from the Red Cross, from FEMA," noted Blaufuss, the UCC Global Sharing of Resources Team Leader. "We also want to see how our churches are taking care of the people in their local community."
In Texas, the Disaster Ministries team is well into planning and launching long-term recovery. The UCC is creating a Harvey Disaster Coordinator position in the South Central Conference, to be the point of contact between the church and local organizations. This coordinator will also be collecting and providing details about the need for volunteers.
On Saturday Sept. 23, in Austin, Blaufuss, Wolgemuth and South Central Conference minister the Rev. Don Longbottom will be meeting with representatives of Impact Experience. This national organization builds strategic relationships among investors, foundations, companies and entrepreneurs to help transform marginalized communities.
The Disaster Ministries team then heads to Florida, where on Sunday, Sept. 24, they will be worshipping with a congregation on Marco Island ravaged by Hurricane Irma. Blaufuss and Wolgemuth will be traveling with Conference Minister the Rev. John Vertigan, spending a couple of days visiting local churches and mapping out long-term response.
"We want to be sure to we have a personal presence — a relationship as the United Church of Christ — to help people as they decide how they need to recover," Blaufuss said. "To assist those who may fall through the cracks. We want to walk with them, to build a just world for all."
They will be joined by the Rev. Alan Coe, UCC Florida Conference disaster coordinator. He said that assessments as to what needs to be done in his state have been proceeding slowly, as areas become accessible, and the power returns.
"In time we will figure out how and where we will concentrate our efforts," Coe said. "We may need to pick one area of the state and focus on that and work with our partners in other parts of the state. What we are able to do is determined by funds donated."
The Disaster Ministries team will also be monitoring current recovery work, to see how the gifts to the church's Hurricane Irma appeal can best be used, now and going forward.
For instance, the UCC just sent a solidarity grant to the Miami Shores Community Church. With no power, and under a boil water advisory, the church had been distributing ice, canned food and drinking water to anyone who needed it and using the building's generator to charge cell phones and tablets.
The grant, using money from funds designated for Hurricane Irma recovery, may help the congregation realize plans to offer a hot meal to feed the families in their neighborhood who have not been able to cook.
Blaufuss and Wolgemuth will also confer with Coe on the best timetable for volunteers.
"Volunteers will soon be sent in, on a very limited basis, as part of the early response," Blaufuss said, "and we'll be looking to assign more six to eight months down the road." Housing recovery and rebuilding work will be their primary mission. The UCC is asking those interested in future work in Texas and in Florida to register to volunteer.
Ohio Disaster Coordinator Jim Ditzler has been a long-time volunteer on several recovery missions — from Hurricane Katrina to devastating floods in West Virginia. And while the church isn't calling for boots-on-the-ground help yet to respond to the latest storms in Texas and in Florida, that will be needed for a long time to come.
"Numerous agencies seem to have a timeline on their participation. We don't. The United Church of Christ and other faith organizations, as long as there is a need, we will be there," said Ditzler. "Church to me is being out and helping folks — it makes an impact, to be the person Christ would have us to be."