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Tennessee church opens doors to Gustav evacuees

Kathryn Spry, a volunteer from Hillcrest United Methodist Church, plays with young Hurricane Gustav evacuees in the church's fellowship hall.
UMNS photos by Ronny Perry.

By Deborah White*
Sept. 3, 2008 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Members of Hillcrest United Methodist Church learned quickly how to show radical hospitality when the church became a Red Cross shelter for hurricane evacuees from the Gulf Coast.

Hillcrest's gym has been transformed into accommodations for about 115 people.

As members drove up for their early-morning worship service on Aug. 31, more than 100 people had just arrived on five buses from New Orleans to escape Hurricane Gustav. "There were people all over the place," said the Rev. Paul Purdue, senior pastor, adding that he learned only the day before that the evacuees were coming.

Church volunteers helped the Red Cross set up cots in the gym and ordered about 85 pizzas when a Red Cross-planned lunch was late. They set up a computer with Internet access, created a play area for children, washed clothes, loaned cell phones and drove people to an emergency room, dentist and discount store.

"We have been overwhelmed by people in the congregation wanting to respond," Purdue said.

Gustav was the first emergency for which Hillcrest has served as a Red Cross shelter since leaders signed up the Nashville congregation as a potential shelter site 10 years ago. Hosting evacuees "has been really a cool deal," Purdue said, despite the need for flexibility to accommodate them in church that draws about 300 people to worship each week.

Hosting evacuees "has been really a cool deal," says the Rev. Paul Purdue.

On Sept. 2, for example, the church held a special lunch for a grieving family in its youth room because evacuees had filled the fellowship hall. To make the youth room look as warm as possible, however, church volunteers and evacuees worked together to paint the room.

Pitching in was a natural response for many evacuees, who showed their appreciation to the church by stacking chairs, mopping floors, carrying meals and performing other chores. "I appreciate help," said Miguel Castro. "I’ve got to do something."

Shannon Clausen, a carpenter from New Orleans, agreed. "I give back. I will do anything for anybody," he said.

Staying in a shelter is uncomfortable, Clausen said, but he appreciated the church's hospitality. "This church is straight comfort, straight understanding, straight patience—just loving care," he said.

Blue Torres, a cook, spent much of her time reading one of the church’s Bibles and helping fold a few clothes as she recovered from bronchitis. A volunteer drove her to the hospital for treatment. "I'm very grateful," she said.

Joyce Butler keeps in touch with family on
a computer set up by church volunteers.

Joyce Butler of New Orleans appreciated volunteers providing Internet access so she could keep in touch with family. She drew a small crowd around the computer as she displayed her colorful MySpace page.

Volunteers came from outside the church, too. The Rev. Chuck Becher, a retired United Methodist pastor, and his wife, Peg, drove 78 miles from Woodlawn, Tenn., to lend a hand. "I do it because I want to keep active," he said.

Patty Wilson, a member of First United Methodist Church of Nolensville, Tenn., volunteered to drive evacuees to a discount store after she learned about the shelter at Hillcrest. "We felt we needed to be here. This is what being a Christian is all about—taking care of those in need."

*White is associate editor of Interpreter magazine.

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

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