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Church forms coalition with town to defeat high energy bills

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Cathy Farmer

The Rev. Esther Gant (left) and Mayor Bill Revell (center) formed a coalition that helped residents cut energy bills.

Feb. 27, 2006

By Cathy Farmer* 

DYERSBURG, Tenn. (UMNS) — A looming utility bill crisis, a result of the destruction of refineries on the Gulf Coast by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, was weighing heavily on the mind of Mayor Bill Revell.

Predictions by the federal government of a 71 percent increase in natural gas prices meant the economically disadvantaged in his northwest Tennessee community might soon find themselves out in the cold and out of options.

That’s what made his meeting with the Rev. Esther Gant, pastor of Ross United Methodist Church, such a godsend.

“We made an appointment with the mayor to discuss the upcoming crisis in utility bills,” Gant said. “We wanted to talk to him about what people could do to cut back on demand, where they could go for assistance in paying their bills, and who they could call.”

Gant and a team of four members from her African-American church foresaw suffering if nothing was done.

As Gant outlined her proposal to galvanize the community into pre-emptive action, tears stood in the mayor’s eyes.

“He got up from his desk and gave me a big awesome hug,” Gant said.

“I told her she was the answer to my prayer,” Revell admitted.

Revell is no stranger to prayer. Mayor of Dyersburg for 25 years and a member of First United Methodist Church, he has been reading the Scriptures and praying every morning of that quarter-century with anyone who happens to be in his office at 9 a.m.

“I thought Esther’s idea of warning people about what would happen with their bills and giving them tips to conserve energy was excellent,” Revell said. “I was concerned about the whole community. You want to reach out, be sensitive to the needs of others. As it says in Matthew 25:40, ?... as you did it to the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.’ Esther came at just the right time.”

Mobilizing volunteers

Working together, the 24-member Ross United Methodist Church and the mayor spent a month bringing everyone on board. Volunteers representing the 70 to 80 churches inside the city limits and many community leaders met at the church, filling the sanctuary twice a day, at noon and 6 p.m., every Wednesday in October.

“We needed many volunteers,” Revell explained. “Dyersburg has 17,500 residents of whom about one-third are senior citizens. We had many homes in five different sections of town to cover.”

“It was good to see pastors, the mayor, aldermen, church members and volunteers out there,” Gant said. “It took us a couple of weeks to get to every house. At one house my team visited, the man saw us going up and down the street and sent someone to the door to say, ?We don’t want any of what you have.’ I yelled back, ?It’s about your gas bill,’ and he said, ?Let her in, let her in!’”

One elderly lady living in a trailer broke Gant’s heart. “She has an adult daughter with disabilities living with her. She told me that, if she had to, she would give her whole paycheck not to be cold.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Cathy Farmer

Information packets include an energy wheel and a wall thermometer.

Mike Morgan, superintendent of Dyersburg’s Gas Department, said, “We went by the homes of many elderly people and checked what the thermostat was set on. They might have it at 80 or 90 degrees! We had to check on them or their bills would have been outrageous.”

The information packets handed out by the two-person teams were filled with information and tips assembled by Morgan and by Penny Rice, who’s in charge of Utility Department collections. About 2,000 packets were ordered, each containing an energy conservation wheel, a wall thermometer that indicates when to adjust the heat, and refrigerator magnets.

The teams went door to door handing out the packets, and the information was made available at City Hall where people pay their bills.

The tips were simple steps consumers could take, such as closing drapes and blinds at night to keep in the sun’s warmth, wearing sweaters at home while lowering the thermostat, cutting the temperature on the hot water heater to 120 degrees, sealing leaks around doors, windows and pipes, and refraining from heating unused rooms.

Ross Church member Kenny Lyte said he and the mayor covered Dyersburg’s Milltown area. “Later, I ran into a lady at Wal-Mart. She recognized me and said the stuff in the packet really helped her. She said she had expected her bill to be out the roof, but it was just a little higher than last year.”

Doing for others

Morgan said seeing the mayor and the volunteers going door to door opened a lot of people’s eyes.

Volunteer Sylvester Simpson lost count of the number of houses he visited. He became involved with the effort after attending some of the October meetings at Ross. “And now he’s going to be a new member by profession of faith here at Ross,” Gant said.

Revell was pleased that the city was also able to provide information on what to do if you couldn’t pay your utility bill. Two options were offered: a monthly deferment payment plan for up to six months, and an extension plan, good for up to six weeks.

“We were determined to work with people who ran into trouble and couldn’t pay,” Revell said. “We didn’t want to cut people off if we could keep from it.”

Phone numbers of agencies that could offer monetary aid such as the Union Mission, the Salvation Army, the Northwest Development District and the Matthew 25:40 group were included as well.

Nancy Hardin, a United Methodist who works with Hispanic families in the community, translated all the materials into Spanish and took them with her on visits.

“I added some things about electricity that they wouldn’t know,” Hardin said. “Most of them are from Mexico and come from places without stoves and furnaces. They don’t know about wrapping pipes and outside faucets.”

In addition to the house by house coverage, Morgan and Revell were on TV and radio several times talking about conservation and warning of the high costs coming.

Dorothy Reed, 84, who lives within “hollering distance” of Ross Church, believes the tips in her packet reduced her utility bill one month from $405.09 to a little more than $200.

“But I won’t be asking for financial assistance,” she said firmly. “I still work. The lady I work for is 93 years old, and I’ve been working there for 67 years. Other people need the money worse than I do.”

The high energy bills of this winter may still prove to be a hardship for some in Dyersburg, but it won’t be because no one cares.

*Farmer is director of communications for the Memphis Annual (regional) Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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

 
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