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Flooded Cedar Rapids church offers witness in crisis

A volunteer removes items from flooded-out Salem United Methodist Church, a pillar in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa, since 1873. City officials are reviewing which structures will be allowed to be salvaged and rebuilt in the flood-prone area.
UMNS photos by Marta W. Aldrich.

By Marta W. Aldrich*
July 1, 2008 | CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (UMNS)

The congregation of Salem United Methodist Church isn't accustomed to being on the receiving end of ministry.

Whether feeding the homeless, dispatching mission teams, hosting sports leagues or collecting special offerings, the historic downtown congregation has lived up to its moniker of being a "warm heart in the center of the city" for more than a century.

"We need not fear the future because God is already there," says the Rev. Linda Bibb.

However, after the floods of 2008 filled its basement and sanctuary June 13, as well as damaging thousands of homes in surrounding working-class neighborhoods of Cedar Rapids, the mission-minded church is learning to be "on the receiving end of the body of Christ," according to the Rev. Linda Bibb, pastor.

Now that the waters have receded, volunteers converge daily near the now-gutted church building to receive cleanup assignments for the church and its residential neighbors, most of whom have no flood insurance. More than 4,000 homes were partially submerged in an area that Bibb calls "the worker bee side of town."

"All in all, (the floods) left us speechless to begin with, me included," said Bibb, standing in the church parking lot as volunteers scurried around her. "But it's given me more sermons than I can preach because every person has been a sermon. So we went from speechless to shouting in great witness, and now that people are starting to come to help us … it's overwhelming."

Among those volunteers was the Rev. Scott Meador, part of a 15-member volunteer team from Solon United Methodist Church in south Cedar Rapids. "This could be my church," said Meador, as he carried soggy planks of wood to the curb. "If it were, I would hope people would come to help our church out as well."

Part of another group, 14-year-old Ali Robinson had quit her softball team so she could help clean up her community. "I just didn't see any point in playing ball when I could be here," said the teen, a member of St. Paul's United Methodist Church.

Continuing ministry

Throughout the disaster, Bibb and her congregation have ministered to members and neighbors displaced when the nearby Cedar River overran its banks. They ensured people were evacuated to safety and helped to sandbag both the church and many homes as the river level inched upward. When they laid the last sandbag at the church property on June 11, however, Bibb decided Salem would be the last place they would come once the water receded. Instead, "we discover who needs us most in the community and we go there first because the church is not the building," she said.

The Salem church is drying out after floodwaters filled its basement and first-floor sanctuary level.

The needs have been widespread in Iowa’s second largest city.

"When I say that people have lost everything, that's not a euphemism. That's not being melodramatic. That's true. It's honestly true," Bibb said. "… Every single person at Salem either has been impacted themselves personally or their close family members have, or they worked at a business that is no longer viable."

Despite the upheaval, the church’s daily ministry has continued. A wedding ceremony was moved to a local hotel. Sunday worship services have shifted to Lovely Lane United Methodist Church. An infant was baptized using water from a dehumidifier, since city officials restricted the use of drinking water in the wake of the floods.

'God is already there'

Meanwhile, as city leaders decide which buildings will be allowed to be rebuilt in flood-prone areas of Cedar Rapids, the future is uncertain for Salem and its location on First Avenue. The church was established there in 1873 as an Evangelical United Brethren congregation and today has 331 members.

"This old building has been through … at least five floods where water has gone into the basement, and it does have a sandstone foundation. And we’re not sure if this is the last time that this dear old lady," said Bibb, her voice cracking with emotion as she gestured toward the building, "that this dear old lady will be able to house the Emmaus walk.

"We have housed 134 consecutive Emmaus weekends in this facility since 1987 … (and) 17 Chrysalis flights that we have held here. … There’s been so much ministry that has been poured out."

Volunteers converge on the parking lot to assist with neighborhood cleanup.

No matter the outcome, Bibb declared that God is steadfast and urged the church to be faithful in all things.

"We need not fear the future because God is already there," she said. "God’s already made those plans for us. And if we’re faithful, we’ll be in line with those plans."

After nine years at Salem, Bibb was reassigned to Asbury United Methodist Church in Webster City prior to the floods and preached her final sermon to the Cedar Rapids congregation June 29. The Rev. John Louk of Des Moines became Salem’s pastor this week.

For information about how to help in Iowa, visit the Iowa Annual Conference Web site at www.iaumc.org/storms2008. To donate to the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s work in the Midwest, drop checks in church offering plates or mail them directly to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087. Write Advance #901670 Midwest Flooding Relief on the memo line. Credit-card donations can be made by calling (800) 554-8583 or online at www.givetomission.org.

*Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Video: The Rev. Linda Bibb, KCRG-TV interview

"We don't fear the future because God is already there."

Audio: The Rev. Linda Bibb

"This dear old lady…"

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