By Linda Bloom*
As volunteers in mission, Judy Lewis and her husband, Doug, have worked both the relief and recovery phases of Hurricane Sandy.
During the 2012 Christmas season, the couple pulled a tool trailer from the Early Response Team of First United Methodist Church in Ontario, Calif., to New Jersey, where their team included volunteers from the California-Pacific and Desert Southwest annual (regional) conferences.
After driving through an ice storm, they were treated to a hot meal on arrival at the Seaville United Methodist Church. “That’s the kind of hospitality we had the entire time there,” she recalled recently.
Their team helped clean out eight Atlantic City homes. Nearly 10 months later, Judy and Doug Lewis returned to the Northeast as part of a 20-member Cal-Pac volunteer team rebuilding Sandy-damaged homes on Long Island.
One of the homes, elevated on 9-foot pylons, belonged to Lisa Mentges. Almost two years earlier, she invested $50,000 in new windows, a cathedral ceiling and new hardwood floors.
Only the windows survived, but Mentges seemed heartened and ready to pitch in as the volunteers began to rebuild the interior with insulation and drywall. The best part about the work, Judy Lewis said later, “was knowing just not that her house had been touched, but her life had been touched.”
A spiritual connection
Volunteers are the backbone of United Methodist disaster response, and nobody knows that better than the people who set up the work opportunities.
“I am just so touched, at some spiritual level, by the Methodist connection,” said Bobbie Ridgely, director of A Future with Hope, the Sandy response organization for the Greater New Jersey Conference.
“It is just an amazing thing. I didn’t have a full appreciation of that before I started this job.”
Nearly 100 volunteer teams had worked in New Jersey on the recovery phase for Sandy between the end of March and early October.
Volunteer manager Lisa Park said those figures included a number of youth groups. Online surveys after their experience shows “very, very positive feedback,” she said.
Some of that feedback is because of host churches, such as Bethany St. John United Methodist Church in Pleasantville, N.J., just outside Atlantic City. Nearly closed two years ago, the small congregation has found new purpose through its “transformational” hosting ministry, said Carol Hutchison, a certified lay minister, appointed there in July.
In New York, a command post was established at Community United Methodist Church in Massapequa, where Peggy Racine, a church member, serves as the Long Island Sandy site coordinator.
“We had over 1,500 volunteers come through just in Massapequa alone,” she said.
More teams are signing up for rebuilding project, she reported. “The focus now is to get the people back into a home,” Racine explained. “We want to make it safe and secure and sanitary.”
Teams from a variety of states have worked on Sandy-damaged homes in Brooklyn.
A particular relationship has evolved with teams from the Virginia Conference, which left a tool trailer on loan.
Forrest White, a staff member of Trinity United Methodist Church in Richmond, is one of Brooklyn’s repeat Virginia visitors.
In his volunteer position as the conference’s United Methodist Volunteers In Mission coordinator, he led two teams last spring and one in August.
Some church members, he finds, still carry the stereotype of America’s larger cities as dangerous places, but White uses words from Psalm 46, “God is in the midst of the city,” as his guide. “Certainly, that’s what we found when we went to Brooklyn,” he said. “We just met some amazing people there.”
Caleb Keane, Sandy construction manager for Resurrection Brooklyn, expressed his appreciation for the teams – and their tool trailers – as he watched volunteers from Covenant Community Church in Asheville, N.C., work at a hidden lane of homes, formerly used as fishing bungalows, near the water in Sheepshead Bay.
“We’ve gotten some really good teams from the United Methodists,” he said.
Gillian Prince, who works in the New York Conference’s Brooklyn relief office, is happy to share the labor.
“I love my Methodist volunteers,” she declared, noting that an Alabama group drove 19 hours to get to Brooklyn. “They are the best…they come in ready and willing to work.”