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Mass. churches join tornado response


6:00 P.M. EST June 9, 2011

United Methodist Bishop Peter Weaver (left) views tornado damage in Monson, Mass., with fellow United Methodists and town officials Lori Stacy (center) and Debi Mahar. UMNS photos by Alexx Wood, New England Conference.
United Methodist Bishop Peter Weaver (left) views tornado damage in Monson, Mass., with fellow United Methodists and town officials Lori Stacy (center) and Debi Mahar. UMNS photos by Alexx Wood, New England Conference.
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At 4 a.m. Tuesday, six days after a rare violent tornado skipped through the small town of Monson, Mass., the stove in the kitchen at Monson-Glendale United Methodist Church was fired up.

During the next two and a half hours, a small group of volunteers produced 120 breakfast sandwiches for firefighters and members of the National Guard to eat and to distribute to the tornado survivors they were assisting.

When a town resident walked into the church in a bit of a daze, just because the door was open, a church member greeted him by name and asked him if he wanted coffee or a sandwich.

For the Rev. Joseph Chamberland, pastor of First United Methodist Church in neighboring Stafford Springs, Conn., the scene at the Monson church served as a literal example of the denomination’s “Open Hearts, Open Doors, Open Minds” philosophy.

He felt “blessed” to be volunteering with a congregation that has such a deep connection to its community. “The Methodist Church there is small but mighty,” he declared.

Both Monson and Springfield, Mass., about 24 miles to the west, sustained major damage June 1 when three tornados struck 19 communities in the state, leaving three dead and dozens injured. The United Methodist New England Annual (regional) Conference began an immediate response, assisted by an initial $10,000 grant from the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which is collecting donations for this year’s spring storms.

“The connection was immediately there for us,” said Bishop Peter Weaver, noting the conference previously received an UMCOR grant to respond to flooding in Vermont during the last eight weeks.

The New England Conference has trained emergency-response teams to help clear damage and assist residents. Additional help, including volunteer work teams, is being organized through the district office and the conference’s Volunteers In Mission program.

Joplin-like scenes

Weaver preached at the Monson church on Sunday and visited tornado-damaged neighborhoods both there and in Springfield, which looked similar to news reports he had seen from Missouri.

The town of Monson, Mass., suffered major damage in the June 1 tornado.
The town of Monson suffered major damage in the June 1 tornado.
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“In both Springfield and in Monson, you had the same kind of scenes that you saw in Joplin, where houses were totally leveled,” the bishop said. “In one case in Monson, a house was totally turned upside down.”

Of the three churches along Main Street in Monson, only the United Methodist church escaped significant damage from the tornado, which devastated much of this town of 8,500, leaving many of its municipal buildings unusable.

Gretchen Neggers, the town administrator for the past 20 years, is an active member of Monson-Glendale United Methodist, along with Lori Stacy, town finance director, and Debi Mahar, director of the senior center. When Neggers saw the devastation, she said, “my soul was chilled at what my town was facing.”

But she is grateful for the support of Monson’s congregations. “There’s been incredible cooperation between all the churches in town, many of which sustained heavy damage themselves, and the town itself,” she said.

Churches are temporarily filling the gaps for destroyed or compromised municipal buildings. The senior center’s Meals on Wheels program, for example, now operates out of the Monson-Glendale kitchen. “They (seniors) would be hungry if it weren’t for the United Methodist church opening its kitchen,” she added.

Led by the Congregational church, the churches also have taken on the task of coordinating volunteers and supplies. “We’ve been very overwhelmed by the level of donations and the volume of people who want to help,” Neggers explained.

Some of the 100-member Monson-Glendale congregation, which usually draws about 50 to Sunday worship, are dealing with tornado damage to their homes. But the response of church members has been “absolutely incredible” in the eyes of their part-time pastor, the Rev. Carol Stine.

“We got organized, and they’ve just taken over,” she said. “They’ve cooked and prepared about 2,000 meals. They’ve collected clothes and food and toys and dishes.”

Volunteers from Trinity United Methodist Church in Springfield, Mass., clear storm damage at a home that was hit by the tornado.
Volunteers from Trinity United Methodist Church in Springfield, Mass., clear storm damage at a home that was hit by the tornado.
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The town knows it can come to the church when food is needed, Stine said. Volunteers there made breakfast sandwiches on Wednesday as well as Tuesday and, upon request, cooked a dinner for police officers, firefighters and the National Guard on Tuesday evening. Some folks who stopped by the church around the same time looking for food walked away with 40 hot chicken dinners.

Neighborhoods flattened in Springfield

In Springfield, Trinity and Wesley United Methodist churches escaped tornado damage, but a tree went through the roof of the former First United Methodist Church building in West Springfield, said the Rev. Heidi Chamberland, the Connecticut/Western Massachusetts District superintendent.

The building is vacant and up for sale because the congregation merged with another church. “That area of West Spring on Main Street was also significantly damaged,” she reported.

As in Monson, neighborhoods are gone and businesses demolished. “The challenge is going to be the long haul,” Chamberland said. “A lot of folks are still kind of in shock.”

Trinity Church, which has about 275 in worship on Sundays, immediately began organizing a response. Trinity’s pastors, the Rev. John Mueller and the Rev. Sue Frost, looked at their membership list and contacted people living in areas hit by the tornado. “A lot of times we couldn’t contact them by phone because the power has been down,” Mueller said.

Pastors and church members have gone into the affected neighborhoods, such as nearby East Forest Park, inquiring after the needs of residents and “praying with them and listening to them.” Volunteer teams have returned to cut down trees, remove debris, put up plywood and pass out sandwiches.

The impact on the city has been significant. “Sections of blocks downtown are being torn down,” he said. “Individual homes are being torn down.”

One church member is the vice president of Square One, an early childhood education organization, whose office building already was condemned and razed. Another active church member, the superintendent of schools, is dealing with several severely damaged elementary schools. “He knows that the church is ready to help out in any way,” Mueller added.

Emotional impact

And then there are the emotional stories of people whose lives have been changed by the tornados:

  • A young family in Monson who found their 2-year-old daughter’s baptismal certificate and candle in their nearly destroyed home and decided to light the candle to celebrate God’s grace in the wake of disaster.
  • A 93-year-old Springfield man whose damaged home burned when power resumed after the tornado, but was “full of the spirit of the Lord” and prayed with the bishop in the midst of the rubble.
  • A young couple, affiliated with the Trinity congregation, who “couldn’t believe how their church family was reaching out and caring for them.”
  • An outpouring of letters and cards from children in Massachusetts and elsewhere received by Neggers for the children of Monson.

For members of Joseph Chamberland’s congregation, who have worked on hurricane recovery in Louisiana, it was important to hear these stories and be present physically and in prayer for the nearby Monson community, where some of them live.

On Monday night, members cooked about 300 meals at the Stafford Springs church and transported the hot food in thermal containers to Monson. Volunteers arrived again the next morning to clear brush with chainsaws, work at the response center and help prepare those breakfast sandwiches.

“It’s just a real blessing to do what sort of comes naturally to us,” Chamberland said.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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