Editor’s note: As Lutheran Disaster Response supports recovery work in the U.S. in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, Mark Opgrand, pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Wilmington, N.C., shared the following reflection about his congregation’s response to help those affected by this disaster.
Like everyone in the eastern coastal states, we waited and we watched as Hurricane Matthew moved toward us. For people at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wilmington, N.C., it was a familiar experience. The projected intensity of the storm did not require most of us to evacuate, so we waited.
Most area congregations canceled Sunday services, but we took the chance and stayed open. St. Paul’s did not lose power, so while we set a record-low attendance, worship was deep and meaningful as we watched the skies clear. Many people in the area lost power for several days and some trees as well, but damage was minimal for us this time.
However, we learned rather quickly of the devastation in other parts of the state, particularly the Lumberton area. One of the sons of our congregation, Volley Hanson, is pastor at St. Mark’s Lutheran in Lumberton. St. Paul’s Congregation Council president, Frances Lamb, was able to contact Pastor Volley and assess the immediate needs.
Frances and her husband, Allen, have a business in Lumberton, so they were able to be in touch with their office manager who in turn was able to navigate some of their business vehicles around the flooded back roads to Wilmington, where they were loaded with water and food and sent back to Lumberton. Because St. Mark’s Lutheran in Lumberton had space, electricity and minimal damage, it became our warehouse and distribution point.
Soon we rented a larger truck, and through Facebook, email and word of mouth, we let people know what was needed in Lumberton. It has often been said among relief agencies that after a disaster, the “second disaster” is dealing with a flood of unwanted goods. I will always remember that truckload of frozen chicken delivered after Hurricane Fran to an area without electricity. This time our list was specific.
We set up a special bank account for cash contributions. When the banker learned what we were doing, she gave a $500 donation herself. Several thousand dollars quickly poured in from our members. Harris Teeter, a local food store, immediately gave three pallets of water and baby food.
One of our members is the principal at Pine Valley Elementary School in Wilmington, and she shared what was needed with her staff. They gathered a truckload of items from the list, all nicely organized and ready to transport to St. Mark’s distribution center.
One person had a friend from Salisbury, N.C., who makes high-quality, custom T-shirts. When she learned what we were doing, she offered to donate 134 new shirts but didn’t know how to ship them. One of our members works at a factory near her during the week, so he brought the T-shirts to Wilmington, where we loaded them on the truck.
The list we work from has expanded from water and food and personal items to clothes, toys, games and books for the children who continue to be in shelters. A UPS worker learned what we are doing and collected items from other UPS workers, which were loaded on our non-UPS truck. The daughter of one of our members remembered that the animal shelters need help too, so she collected a large amount of food and supplies to be dropped off. Another member posted the list on his community bulletin board, and from that came another generous response. Our relationship with Trinity Grove Lutheran Home opened the doors to get the word out with them, and their staff and residents have responded generously.
These are a few examples of how this grass-roots relief effort through St. Paul’s has been going; it started with the need, a few simple conversations, the right things falling into place and many generous hearts. Because we have a close connection to St. Mark’s Lutheran through Pastor Volley and they have space and we have the truck as well as the means to get the word out, we have been able to make a meaningful contribution to this relief effort.
We are in touch daily with what is needed, and we will continue to respond as we are able. Wonderfully, this has happened without overhead or layers of bureaucracy. We are pleased that people can give knowing their gifts are going just where they are needed.
Our former interim pastor asked us last summer if we had a hurricane preparedness plan in place. We did not, but in response we observed that because so many have been through this before, we pretty much know what to do. You check on people, find out what is needed and help.
At the heart of our motivation is our relationship with a generous God who gives us many opportunities to serve our neighbor. When the need arises, we respond. That’s what people of faith do. And all are blessed.