Henry Zorn, a pastor of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Cincinnati, is never at a loss for words to describe how the congregation’s disaster-relief ministry benefits people.
From helping those in need to team-building to deepening people’s faith to improving a congregation’s self-esteem, Resurrection’s disaster-relief ministry is a robust and holistic one.
“We go to repair people’s homes after a natural disaster, but we’re also repairing their spirit,” said Zorn, who has served the congregation for 26 years.
The 400-member congregation has made 19 trips to help rebuild homes after disasters, including several visits to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They clean out damaged houses, remove studs, install plasterboard and flooring, and do other construction work. They also provide emotional and spiritual healing, listening to homeowners and disaster victims share their stories of trauma, fear and frustration.
Resurrection’s most recent trip was in June 2022 to Mayfield, Ky., where tornadoes killed eight and damaged many homes in December 2021. This was the ministry’s first trip since the pandemic and left many participants with a sense of fulfillment and service.
“I painted and painted and painted,” said member Christie Brown, who has participated in several disaster-relief trips through the congregation. “Sometimes service is prayer, and this was my prayer,” she said.
Brown especially enjoyed the bonding that occurred with the Resurrection team during evening sharing sessions. “Sharing every night during our ‘God moments’ and getting to know the team better was great,” she added.
“Sometimes service is prayer, and this was my prayer.”
“It’s a spiritual retreat with nails,” Zorn said.
But these trips are about more than construction tools. “Of utmost importance to me is that these are not just work trips,” he added. “Any organization can do good work. We always come back from these trips with an abundance of God moments because we are specifically attentive to God’s presence in each day.
“It’s community-building for us too. Not only are the trips a fundamental way that we can love our neighbor—‘the least of these’—but they build up the body of Christ. We have a passion for this ministry.”
This passion developed serendipitously in 2004, when Zorn and his wife, Cindy, changed their vacation plans at the last minute to go to Port Charlotte, Fla., after learning that a church building had its steeple blown off by Hurricane Charley. At the time, Cindy’s parents were in Port Charlotte and told the Zorns that help was greatly needed.
“We were going to visit friends on Long Island, N.Y., for vacation, and instead went to Florida,” Zorn said. “We helped an elderly couple who had their home damaged. The wife cared for the husband, who had dementia. Cindy sat and talked with the wife. It was a very positive experience and deeply meaningful, and I spoke about it often in church.”
A year later, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas, member Jason Leupen asked if the congregation could respond, Zorn said. Thus, the congregation’s Disaster Relief Team’s ministry was born.
Zorn recalled how 12 members mucked out houses—gutting them of materials contaminated by floodwater and mold—by day and had eucharist, devotions and prayers in the mornings and evenings. “It was a deeply spiritual experience, and we learned just how meaningful this ministry was for our congregation,” he said.
Showing up for neighbors
Leupen went on the initial 2005 trip to New Orleans as well as 14 other relief trips, including a mission to New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. “The trips have allowed me to share my time and gifts with people who desperately need it,” he said. “While the trips include mucking out a house or hanging Sheetrock, they also allow us to be present to people who have suffered from a natural disaster. We always get so much more back than we give.”
“Disaster relief gives people a practical way to practice their faith,” Zorn added. “It’s an essential response to Matthew 25: ‘When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was in prison, you visited me.’ When I had a disaster, you helped me.
“It’s in the giving that you always receive. When you get out of your comfort zone, God shows up.”
Anyone can participate in the trips—members don’t need construction skills or physical strength, Zorn said. On one trip, he recalled, a member in her 70s cooked the team’s meals.
The congregation usually coordinates with local disaster-relief agencies, with funding from Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR). Resurrection designated last year’s Lenten offerings to disaster relief. Its relief teams “are helpful to LDR because they ensure that Lutherans are showing up in communities impacted by disasters,” said Louisa Ishida, LDR program communicator.
“We always get so much more back than we give.”
“Lutheran Disaster Response and the ELCA are organizational names that are known nationally, but it’s the volunteers like those at [Resurrection] who bring Lutherans as individuals to the local level,” Ishida said. “They’re the hands of ‘God’s work. Our hands.’ It’s the people on the ground, doing the work, showing up for their neighbors, that are so important for the ministry of LDR and the ELCA as a whole.”
The disaster team chose to go to Mayfield because the town is only a five-hour drive from Cincinnati. In addition, the congregation was familiar with the region through its work with Manna From Heaven, a food program located in southeastern Kentucky. Each month, Resurrection members drive truckloads of surplus food, donated by local grocery stores, from Cincinnati to Myra, Ky. Cindy Zorn coordinates this ministry.
The congregation is already planning its June 2023 trip, at a location to be determined. Hurricane Ian’s recent destruction in Florida has made this ministry all the more important, Henry Zorn said.
The ministry is also helping right at home, too, doing a home repair for a congregation member with two teens who lost her husband.
“Disaster relief ministry makes such an impact on a congregation,” Zorn said. “It feels good, and it builds up a congregation’s self-esteem. Every congregation wants to feel that it’s walking in the steps of Jesus.”
To help or to learn more about Lutheran Disaster Response, visit elca.org/ldr.