ALCOA, Tenn. (Sept. 14, 2018) -- The sign at Bookwalter United Methodist Church reads, “Welcome, Carolina evacuees. Praying for y’all.”
Bookwalter members are not just putting up thoughtful church signs, however. They're putting some heartfelt hospitality behind their words.
Realizing that a cluster of Knoxville hotels might be housing Hurricane Florence evacuees, church members queried hotel managers to learn that about 250 coastal neighbors had escaped the wind and water to find lodging in eight hotels where Interstate 75 and Merchants Drive connect.
“We are having a free cookout for them Sunday after church and have taken bags of dog treats to eight of those hotels for those who brought pets,” said the Rev. Steve Doyal. “We are also trying to put together some little kits with snacks and toiletries while they are stuck in a hotel.”
Bookwalter is one of several Holston Conference congregations that didn’t wait for the hurricane to hit full force before they found ways to help their neighbors from North Carolina, South Carolina, and other shoreline states.
Some churches announced plans to open as shelters, while others said they are on the Red Cross standby list in case more shelters are needed.
Shades of Grace United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tennessee, is 400 miles northwest of Wilmington, N.C., where the category 1 storm made landfall earlier today. The distance didn’t deter the leader of the predominantly homeless congregation to announce on Monday that the church would open as a “safe harbor” for hurricane evacuees as well as others.
“Many of our homeless folk live in tents and encampments along the creek and in low-lying areas,” said the Rev. Will Shewey. “So we may have local evacuees as well as those from out of state … We are waiting until needed and have volunteers and supplies ready.”
The Rev. Brad Stapleton, pastor of East Stone Gap United Methodist Church, also announced his church would open as a shelter for people escaping the hurricane. The congregation built their church with extra accommodations so they could be ready to help at times like this, he said.
"We are located in Big Stone Gap in southwest Virginia, on the outskirts of the projections of the storm, and only expect three to four inches of rain in our area,” Stapleton said. “Our church has a hot shower and a full kitchen facility available for use, in addition to sleeping areas. All are invited to come, and we will keep families together.”
The Rev. Don Hanshew said that Dublin United Methodist Church planned to open as a Red Cross shelter in Dublin, Virginia. The Rev. Chris Brown said that Colonial Heights United Methodist Church is on standby to open as a Red Cross shelter in Kingsport, Tennessee, if needed.
Elk Garden School Community Ministry is on standby to open as a shelter if the county emergency coordinator decides it's needed, said the Rev. Brooke Atchley. The community center in Rosedale, Virginia, is also a donation drop-off and distribution site for Red Cross, as needed. “Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that,” she said.
Other United Methodist congregations began collecting hygiene items and cleaning supplies for hurricane-impacted areas – some before Holston mission leaders issued a conference-wide request for the specially prepared relief kits on Sept. 12.
The denomination’s disaster-response agency, UMCOR, provides item lists and packing directions for churches and other groups who want to provide practical, essential needs for disaster survivors.
“Our church is planning ahead and making health kits,” said Martha Glovier Combs, member of Cleveland United Methodist Church. “We are very small, but we always make health kits or buckets to help.” The church in Cleveland, Virginia, has about 10 in average worship attendance.
On Wednesday, a mission team from Tuckaleechee United Methodist Church loaded 515 cleaning kits and 1,000 hygiene kits into Holston's disaster-response trailer located in Marion, Virginia. Tuckaleechee UMC is located in Townsend, Tennessee.
“They are here on a mission trip, working on two sites, but took time to help load the trailer,” said the Rev. Harry Howe, Project Crossroads director. Prepared by Holston churches, the kits had been stockpiled at Project Crossroads in Marion and are now ready and waiting to be delivered when UMCOR makes the request.
At the Holston Conference headquarters, the Rev. Tim Jones learned today that the Red Cross office in Kingsport had read about the United Methodist collection of health and cleaning kits in a newspaper article. The Red Cross office wanted to make arrangements so other groups could help collect the relief kits and deliver them to Colonial Heights United Methodist, said Jones, Holston communications director.
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Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.