News Archives

Churches help make Christmas merry for evacuees

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Photo courtesy of Linda Comer

A single mother of two teenage boys gets a Christmas tree and all the trimmings from Grace United Methodist Church, Cape Coral, Fla.
Dec. 16, 2005

A UMNS Feature
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

For the thousands left homeless by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Christmas will be one more painful reminder of all they have lost.

But while there is no place like home, thousands of United Methodists are providing second chances and Christmas cheer to evacuees from Louisiana and Mississippi.

Iris Morris, a single mother from Gretna, La., has found a new start for her family of seven in rural eastern North Carolina, thanks to the generosity of members of Pine Forest United Methodist Church in Goldsboro.

“It is different; they don’t sell food items we are used to, they don’t sell gumbo,” Morris says. “It is quieter, it is smaller. I guess no place is like home.”

Members of the Friendship Sunday school class at Pine Forest drove to Louisiana to pick up the family. Since then they have provided the family with a home, transportation, furniture, food and clothing. Church members have also helped Morris’ family find jobs and enroll in community schools.

“The church has been very good to us from helping us mentally, spiritually, even financially,” Morris says. “If we need to do anything, go anyplace, someone is always willing to help. They have welcomed us, they have opened their hearts and lives to us.”

Each member of the Morris family filled out a Christmas wish list, and individual Sunday school classes are making sure those gifts make it under their Christmas tree. A collection was also taken up to give family members cash to purchase gifts for one another.

“The thing that really excites me about all this, even though I am the pastor and have a leadership role, it is really the desire of this congregation that has been driving the whole deal,” says the Rev. Billy Olsen. “I really feel like my church is redefining what disaster relief looks like.”

“Shepherds” at Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Coral, Fla., are watching over six families who have moved to their area after Katrina, Rita and Wilma destroyed their homes.

After Hurricane Katrina, the Rev. Jorge Acevedo challenged the congregation to “save one family.”

What began as a project to take care of one family by providing housing and all the other day-to-day needs has turned into a ministry of serving six families. Stephen Ministers in the church serve as shepherds to the family, providing for their needs and reporting on their needs and progress to the church.

“It is the Incarnation … It is just the Christmas story, the ‘Word became flesh and dwelt among us,’” says Acevedo. “It is not just sending money up line and saying, ‘Let me let the denomination take care of this,’ it is saying, ‘We are all vested in this, let’s do this together, work on this together.’”

For Christmas, the local Boy Scout troop donated six trees and the church staff collected six bags of ornaments and lights.

“We are providing all the gifts and trimmings for those families who have not been able to get back on their feet,” Acevedo says.

‘Going to be a great Christmas’

In Denver, hundreds of families will be giving new toys to their children, thanks to Epworth United Methodist Church.

“We provided 4,000 baskets for Thanksgiving,” the Rev. King Harris says. “For Christmas, the parents and children will come into church, the children will be upstairs singing and playing while their parents will be downstairs shopping.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose

A Santa Claus doll stands amid storm debris in this waterfront neighborhood in Bayou La Batre, Ala., following Hurricane Katrina.
More than 4,000 evacuees arrived in Denver after the storms, and Harris helped 400 of them find housing. “I thought they might want to leave after the first cold snap, but they are still here,” he jokes.

Susan Saxton, an evacuee from Ocean Springs, Miss., is one of the people Harris helped find a new home.

“Things are going a lot better for me, I am glad to be out of Mississippi because everyone has Katrina cough and is sick all the time because of the air quality,” she says.

Beverly Kajko, a member of Wheat Ridge (Colo.) United Methodist Church, helped set Saxton up in a home owned by another church member.

“We have given her moral and spiritual support,” Kajko says. Though Saxton is disabled, Kajko says she is independent and “wants to do for herself.”

“She is a real nice person, and she really loves the house. Hopefully she will stay and become part of the community.”

“They have made it real nice for me,” Saxton says. Saxton grew up in Wheat Ridge and has family living nearby. “It is going to be a great Christmas for me,” she says. “For the first time in 12 years, I will be with my father and brother.”

While she never really planned on moving back to Colorado, she is ready to start her life over again.

“I am a water baby, I like the ocean,” she says. “We had a cold snap and it was 10 below. It has only snowed once, and I am already over it. But I am blessed with all I have gotten.”

Blessings for the givers

Epworth United Methodist Church has a membership of 45 and is located in one of the poorest areas of Denver, Harris says. When asked how such a small church could make such a large contribution he says, “God and me are a majority.”

He goes on to explain, “We do it by not shouting ‘Come to Christ,’ but by having God revealed in us. As a result of that, we have probably per capita more programs than any church in the denomination.”

Two families, “one Katrina and one Rita,” have joined Epworth and are becoming active members of the congregation.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert

A nativity scene sits in the ruins of one of the churches in New Orleans destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Grace United Methodist Church averages about 1,800 in Sunday worship and has a membership of 1,400, “We are one of those weird churches who have more in attendance than are members,” Acevedo says.

The church has really decided to “amp up” their mission program over the past several years. “We have new guiding principles of personalization,” he says. “We don’t just give but we give, go and pray.”

Two of the families helped by Grace United Methodist Church have also become involved in the church. One of the families is Christian and one is not, Acevedo says.

“They are profoundly interested in the things of God. We are having those conversations with them now about what it means to surrender your life to Jesus Christ and how that might work in their own life. It has been another affirmation that we are on the right track in terms of the principle of personalization.”

Pine Forest United Methodist Church in North Carolina is a congregation of 500. “We are not a gargantuan church; we don’t have a church full of millionaires,” Olsen says. “We have a church full of generous and gracious people. I think the witness of this church to United Methodism is that all you really need is a willingness and desire to help.”

The Morris family has become a regular and important part of Pine Forest.

“We are an all-white congregation, and there were a number of people in the church who had some reservations about taking in an African-American inner-city family,” Olsen says. “The Morrises are so nice.”

“We are like so many other places in the country — sometimes racism does rear its ugly head,” he says. Having the family as part of their community has helped the members of the congregation see past their preconceived ideas.

“For as much as our church may have done for them materially, they have given back so much to us,” he says. “You can’t put that stuff in the offering plate on Sunday, they have given us such a gift.”

Katrina Church Recovery Appeal

The Council of Bishops approved the Katrina Church Recovery Appeal #818-001 during its Oct. 30-Nov. 4 fall meeting. The appeal focuses on building new ministries, rebuilding facilities and addressing a wide range of other local church and conference needs, such as paying clergy salaries and covering uninsured losses. Donate online or through local church offerings. In the memo portion of the check, write Bishops’ Appeal #818-001.

Donations to the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s Hurricanes Global (Advance #982523) response can be made at through’s secure server. Checks should be made out to UMCOR, with a designation in the memo line for “UMCOR Advance #982523, Hurricanes 2005 – Katrina.” Contributions intended for a specific state should be so designated. Donations may be placed in United Methodist church offering plates or mailed directly to UMCOR, PO Box 9068, New York, NY 10087. Credit-card donations are also being taken by phone at (800) 554-8583.

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

Related Articles

Hurricane survivors celebrate Advent with joy

Mississippi youth take Christmas spirit to evacuees

Bishops launch appeal to help gulf churches build anew


Archived Stories and Relief Resources

UMCOR Hurricanes 2005

North Carolina Annual Conference

Florida Annual Conference

Rocky Mountain Annual Conference