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United Methodists help Jackson, Tenn., recover from storms

5/13/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: Photographs are available.

By Cathy Farmer*

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
: The sanctuary at Mother Liberty Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Jackson, Tenn., stands in ruins after tornadoes struck the area, killing 11 people. Throughout west Tennessee, United Methodist congregations are helping with the recovery - a process that, for some, begins with their own storm-damaged church buildings. A UMNS photo by Cathy Farmer. Photo number 03-173, Accompanies UMNS #275, 5/13/03

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
: The church bell and sign stand undamaged amid the ruins of Mother Liberty Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Jackson, Tenn. Tornadoes struck the area May 4, killing 11 people. Throughout west Tennessee, United Methodist congregations are helping with the recovery - a process that, for some, begins with their own storm-damaged church buildings. A UMNS photo by Cathy Farmer. Photo number 03-174, Accompanies UMNS #275, 5/13/03
JACKSON, Tenn. (UMNS) - Some 386,354 people live in and around Jackson, and every last one of them has a story to tell about the killer tornadoes that ravaged the city and surrounding west Tennessee counties in early May.

Some of the stories have happy endings. Some don't.

At Dunkin' Donuts in Jackson, a sign directs the unwary to avoid the seats beneath the hail-damaged plate glass window. "Danger. Don't sit here," warns the hand-printed note. Beneath it, on a curled yellow sheet of paper, some wag has added, "Unless you're Steve. Steve, this is your seat!"

Behind the counter, a small woman quickly fills orders for steaming cups of coffee and chocolate donuts. The sadness in her eyes is explained as she talks about the cousin she lost during the storm.

"Her funeral is today, and we can't even take a shower," she says as she hands over a cup of coffee. "My home is in east Jackson, what's left of it. We don't have electricity, so we can't wash our clothes or our towels. I'd feel blessed if I just had some clean towels."

At Highland Park Grocery, the day manager and a young man have an animated discussion as the clerk finished sacking the young man's order.

"I don't have much," the customer says, "but I've got a whole roof over my head, which is more than most of the people in east Jackson can say. I feel truly blessed. This is a time for all of us to pull together and help each other."

The manager nods fervently. "It's times like these when we need our faith the most," he said. "I'm lucky. I only lost siding from my house. So many others lost everything."

During the first week of May, waves of storms struck west Tennessee, and 11 people in Madison County - where Jackson is located - were killed May 4. Tennessee was one of several states in the southeast and south central United States hit by severe weather.

Throughout west Tennessee, United Methodist congregations are helping with the recovery - a process that, for some, begins with their own storm-damaged church buildings. The United Methodist Committee on Relief has representatives in Jackson, and the agency has already approved a $10,000 grant for the area.

Out on Jackson's Denmark Road, where eight people lost their lives, a family gathers to hunt for lost memories. Among the bits and pieces scattered over the ground are pictures of the 7-year-old boy who died there. His mother, propped carefully in a wheelchair, is directing dozens of family members in the hunt.

"She left the hospital against doctor's orders to come here," her brother says. "We're still picking pieces of glass and tin out of her." He looks over the fields of debris that used to be a home. "We just want to save some family pictures for her. That's all."

Lisa Sullivan, chief executive of the Lexington (Tenn.) Chamber of Commerce, hair tucked up under a baseball cap, posts another sticky note requesting help on the wall in front of her desk. "We have 1,500 volunteers coming in on Saturday to help with clean-up," she says. She adds that she is learning how to handle disasters "on the job."

"Some of the teams are United Methodist volunteers," she says. "I understand one is from the Tennessee Conference, one from North Carolina and the other out of Memphis."

Jimmy Whittington, head of disaster relief for the Memphis Annual (regional) Conference, assigned the teams to Lexington. "I expect the teams to rotate in and out of the town for at least a month," he says. He doesn't like for any team to work much longer than three days at a stretch because the labor is so draining, he says.

In Crucifer, a small community midway between Lexington and Jackson, the green fields and widely spaced farms look deceptively peaceful until a curve in the road brings you to a hand-lettered sign warning looters to beware. "Speaking for this community," the sign begins, "in case you think we haven't lost enough, we have guns…" Uprooted trees, flattened barns and imploded houses are visible just past the sign.

And then there's east Jackson. Block after block for mile after mile, in the area of the city least able to afford a disaster, houses, churches, businesses and schools were ravaged. Power lines droop, telephone poles resemble well-used toothpicks, trees block streets and lay half in and half out of houses, bicycles are wound like pretzels, and people sit stunned on bits of front porches.

"It looks like, feels like, it's overwhelming, it's impossible to recover from," says Nancy Eubanks, Memphis Conference coordinator of Volunteers in Mission. "But it isn't. I continue to have faith in the people called Methodist and their ability to answer the call. My role in this is to provide the opportunity for other Methodists who want to contribute and be part of this. We'll take one step at a time, one day at a time, one person at a time."

She estimates, based on the recovery effort she oversaw after the tornadoes of 1999, that putting everything back together could take as long as three years.

"Jimmy Whittington told me that anyone who wants to volunteer to help can call him at (731) 645-3241 or the Program Ministry Office at (731) 664-8480," she says. Volunteers are meeting at 7 a.m. daily at East Trinity United Methodist Church. Two of the conference's Early Response teams, one from Kentucky and the other from the Jackson area, are already working in east Jackson.

"We have two teams working in Dyersburg, one from Memphis and the other from the Camden area," Whittington says. The Early Response teams are concentrating on removing debris.

Joe Moseley, program ministry associate related to disaster response, notes that at least four churches and one parsonage are known to have been damaged or destroyed. "Jackson First is estimated to have at least $1 million in damages; Northside (in Jackson) has hail, wind and water damage in the thousands," he says. Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church in Jackson also was hit, and Shady Grove and Nebo churches, both in Henderson County, suffered minimal damage, he says.

The Rev. Sharon Lewis Karamoko, who serves Keys Chapel in Lexington, was at home when the storm struck. As she knelt praying in the bathroom, the parsonage was destroyed around her.

United Methodist-related Lambuth University in Jackson is providing lodging for volunteer workers and also space for businesses - including the local Procter & Gamble operation - that were hit hard by the storms.

A state away, United Methodists in Vilonia, Ark., have sent word that they want to help out in Jackson. Just weeks ago, when the church's youth group was traveling through Jackson to a music festival in Kentucky, an accident claimed the life of a 14-year-old boy in the group. Members of the group say the Jackson community surrounded them with God's love. Now they want to return the favor. Through their district superintendent, the church sent word that they want to cook for the volunteers.

One step at a time, United Methodists are answering the call in Jackson.
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*Farmer is director of communications for the Memphis Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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