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Little church feeds multitudes after Hurricane Ike

Community volunteers distribute food to Hurricane Ike survivors at a supply
center set up at Grace United Methodist Church in Manvel, Texas.
A UMNS photo courtesy of Grace United Methodist Church.

By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Sept. 30, 2008 | MANVEL, Texas (UMNS)

With a handful of volunteers, the contents of a small church’s pantry and the "absurb notion" that she could, Elaine Warner fed hot meals to more than 400 stranded survivors of Hurricane Ike in the first days after the storm hit.

Warner was one of about 12 members of Grace United Methodist Church who believed that they could feed the multitudes like the little boy who offered Jesus fishes and loaves, said the Rev. Donald Brown.

Elaine Warner helped feed stranded
victims of Hurricane Ike. A UMNS
photo by Mike DuBose.

"And we did!" he said.

The soft-spoken Warner earned the nickname "kitchen nazi" after taking charge of the feeding ministry when Ike struck Texas on Sept. 13. "Everybody raved about the food," she said, shaking her head in amazement. "I just dumped some generic gallon cans of tomato sauce into a pot and made spaghetti."

Like many places on the Gulf Coast, the small town of Manvel was without water, electricity and food after the hurricane. No stores were open, and Manvel was not on anyone’s radar to receive assistance, according to Brown.

Because Grace recently had started a food pantry, members of the community began coming to the church for help. With an average Sunday worship attendance of about 50, the small church was used to serving about 125 families a week. In the first few days after Ike, Grace fed more than 13,000 people.

"It was the Holy Spirit, it was a God thing," said Brown, explaining how the small congregation was able to do so much. Brown called everyone he could think of for help, and trucks of water, food and ice started arriving in the church parking lot.

"One pastor from Austin, Texas, told me he had just written the biggest check in his life to Costco for water," Brown said.

Soon, helped began arriving from United Methodists from across the United States.

"On Wednesday, we had four 24-bottle packages of water and 50 volunteers. By Thursday we had 30 pallets of water," Brown said. "Volunteers started appearing out of nowhere. … They came from every local church—the Marines, Boy Scouts—it was just a blur."

It took several days for FEMA to set up a pod to distribute food, water and ice to the community. Brown said many officials he had called for help had a "let-them-eat-cake attitude." One county official told him to send the needy people to Wal-Mart since it recently had reopened.

"It was the Holy Spirit, it was a God
thing," says the Rev. Donald Brown.
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.  aaaaaaaaaaa

"These are economically disadvantaged people," Brown said. "They don’t even have transportation to get to Wal-Mart.

"It was truly a loaves and fishes story. Food was so abundant and came so fast we didn’t know what was happening."

Visiting with Brown 12 days after the storm, Bishop Janice Riggle Huie told the pastor that "people looked at you and saw the face of Jesus."

Huie later wrote about her visit to Grace church in one of her daily letters updating United Methodists about storm response and needs. The letters were posted on the Web site of the church's Texas Annual (regional) Conference, which Huie leads.

"The practice of operating a food pantry week after week can easily feel more like hard work than some grand example of 'risk-taking mission and service,'" she wrote.

"However, that practice gave these dear Methodists the eyes to see the ‘least of these’ in their community. They saw them as friends who needed their help, and Christ multiplied their generosity many times over to serve far more people than they could ever imagine. Truly, the presence of God was in that place."

*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 newsdesk@umcom.org.

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