By Sam Hodges*
The Rev. Emily Flemming, in her first pastoral appointment and with a 4-month old baby, found herself having to flee Lyons, Colo., this weekend because of epic flooding that took out bridges and roads and shut down utilities and the local water system.
She’d done all she could to help residents before authorities gave a general evacuation order. Now it could be weeks or longer before she’s able to get back to her family’s residence and open Lyons Community (United Methodist) Church again for worship.
“I told my husband, `We’re homeless,’” Flemming said. “He said, `No, we’re town-less.’”
Across the Denver area, particularly the Front Range communities by and in the Rocky Mountains, United Methodists are coming to terms with damage sustained and needs to be addressed.
The Rev. Scott Schiesswohl, 59-year-old pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Boulder, is a fifth-generation Coloradoan who has seen major floods and wildfires grip the state.
But he’s shaken by the flooding that began Wednesday and continued through Sunday, destroying bridges and roads and cutting off whole communities.
“It’s the worst disaster we’ve faced in my time in ministry,” he said.
Touched by death of teens
The flood-related death toll stood at seven Monday, though officials said hundreds of others remained unaccounted for.
Though no United Methodists were known to have died or suffered major injuries, Schiesswohl’s church was touched by the much-publicized drownings of two teens in a flash flood early Thursday.
According to news reports, Wesley Quinlan, 19, died in a futile effort to save his girlfriend, Wiyanna Nelson, also 19. Quinlan’s grandmother is Mildred Coleman, 99, a lifelong member of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church.
“She obviously is quite devastated by his loss and especially under the circumstances,” Schiesswohl said.
St. Paul’s United Methodist had major flooding in its basement, damaging the offices of various church ministries as well as choir robes.
But on Sunday, even as rain continued, the church held worship. A service that usually draws from 80 to 100 drew about 65. Among them was Denver Area Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky.
“Her presence represents the whole church praying for us and being connected to us,” Schiesswohl said.
The pastor estimated that at least a third of his congregation faces flood damage at home. His parsonage was so hard hit that he’s moved into a camper trailer in the driveway. He lost his home office, which included photos and other memorabilia of his late daughter, Leslie, his personal library and research materials he used for his doctoral dissertation.
Schiesswohl said he and his congregants have fared better than many. Still, he changed his Sunday sermon to address the feelings of loss.
“We have to let go of our past, and we don’t know what our future holds,” he said, summarizing the message. “We just have to be in the moment and present with God as we walk through these terrible situations.”
Though the community of Lyons has been evacuated, the United Methodist Church there came appears to have come through with no damage, except to doors that swelled so from humidity that they became next-to-impossible to open.
“I called the trustees and said, `I think we’re secure,’” Flemming said, laughing at the one unexpected benefit of the flooding.
Flemming had opened Lyons Community Church as a relief center about 2 a.m. Thursday, as the seriousness of the flooding became clear.
“Those first few hours were people streaming in soaking wet,” she said. “They’d woken up with water lapping at their beds. They showed up at the church in their pajamas.”
Within a few hours, authorities had moved those at the church to an evacuation center. Flemming continued to volunteer through Saturday, when she and her family had to leave with other residents. The town had lost power and its water supply, and various bridges and roads were out of service.
She and baby daughter Lillian are staying in Denver. Her husband is part of a National Park Service response team working in flood-damaged areas.
When they’ll get back to Lyons is unclear. She’s heard estimates ranging from two weeks to three months.
“We’re not sure how many structures are compromised, how many bridges might be broken,” Flemming said.
Assessment still going on
Another town essentially cut off by flooding is Estes Park. The Rev. Walter “Skip” Strickland, superintendent of the Peaks and Plains District, said Monday that he’d had an email from the pastor of the United Methodist Church of Estes Park, the Rev. Donna Patterson, saying the church building had escaped serious damage.
Rocky Mountain Annual (regional) Conference officials reported various other churches with a range of flood-related issues, and in some cases, assessments still were going on.
The Rev. Nancy Boswell is pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Fort Collins and serves as a relief official for her district. She said the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is sending cleaning buckets to a distribution center is Loveland, Co.
For now, Boswell is encouraging United Methodists who want to help to give to UMCOR or the Rocky Mountain Conference’s relief fund.
“There will be plenty for us to do in the coming weeks and months,” she said.
On Monday, Highlands United Methodist Church in Denver used Facebook and other means to ask for contributions for cleaning buckets.
“I saw four different folks drop things off just in the first three hours of this morning,” said the Rev. Bradley Laurvick, pastor. “I am excited and hopeful for what will be a blessed and generous week of outreach and service with our entire community.”
*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.