|Churches help make Christmas merry for evacuees|
Dec. 16, 2005
|Photo courtesy of Linda Comer
single mother of two teenage boys gets a Christmas tree and all the
trimmings from Grace United Methodist Church, Cape Coral, Fla.
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
“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
“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
“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.”
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.
|A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose
Santa Claus doll stands amid storm debris in this waterfront
neighborhood in Bayou La Batre, Ala., following Hurricane Katrina.
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
“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.
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.
|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.
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
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
“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’
Donations to the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s Hurricanes
Global (Advance #982523) response can be made at www.methodistrelief.org
through UMC.org’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
*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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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