SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. (Dec. 22, 2016) -- Soon it will be a month since deadly wildfires seized upon the illuminated woods and hills of Gatlinburg, thrusting the residents of Sevier County into a survivors’ spotlight late on the evening of Nov. 28.
It’s been quite a month in Holston Conference, where the 20 United Methodist churches in Sevier County are part of a network of 881 total congregations in east Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and north Georgia.
As of Dec. 21, $147,002 had been received from all over the nation for Holston’s wildfire response, according to the treasurer’s office in Alcoa, Tenn. An untold amount of supplies for first-responders and volunteers – followed by clothing, household items, and gifts for families who lost their homes or jobs -- have arrived daily at the Alcoa Conference Center and at United Methodist churches in the wildfire region.
All of the United Methodist churches and pastors’ homes in the area escaped destruction, although some came perilously close to the flames and suffered smoke damage.
“You could see the hand of God,” said the Rev. Edna Lopez, describing how the fire came within two feet of the house where she lives with her husband and three children.
Many residents were not so fortunate. Twelve families in the congregation at First United Methodist of Gatlinburg were “burned out,” including the home of the church treasurer, according to the Rev. Dan Moore.
“Our checks were burned up,” Moore said. “It was hard to do anything until we ordered new ones.”
At least three of the 14 fire fatalities were people that First Gatlinburg knew and served through its Bread of Life ministry. Every Tuesday for the last 13 years, the congregation delivered food to rundown motels where low-income resort employees and needy families lived behind the pancake houses and nicer hotels, hidden from tourists.
“We know of two others that we haven’t seen and are worried about,” Moore said. “A lot of those weekly rentals where they lived have burned up, and they don’t have anywhere to go to. We’ll have to re-trace our route and see what’s left and who we can help.”
Some of the First Gatlinburg families have insurance and resources to rebuild, but many families – especially in the immigrant community -- do not. United Methodist pastors with Hispanic congregations have been on the front lines in connecting these families with housing, furniture, food, supplies, and gift cards.
The Rev. Susana Lopez, co-pastor at El Ministerio del Espiritu Santo in Sevierville, has worked around the clock with many others to locate beds and blankets, translate for families needing assistance, hand out diapers and baby food, and direct the constant flow of requests and incoming supplies.
“What I’ve enjoyed, even through the bad times, is getting to know all these people,” Lopez said.
The Rev. Edna Lopez, co-pastor of the Hispanic congregation at First United Methodist of Gatlinburg, said that so far, 15 displaced families have found housing through her church, with the help of United Methodist funds and volunteers.
At 10 p.m. after a church Christmas party on Dec. 21, Lopez was headed out to pick up and deliver bed linen and pillows for a family that had just moved into a new place.
“This was a hard hit for many families but in the midst of it all, God's love is shining stronger than ever through so many people,” she said. “I'm speechless seeing the hands, the feet, the body of Jesus working and sharing the true meaning of Christmas this season.”
The timing of the wildfires elevated the response of givers from all over the nation, many who wanted to send Christmas presents to Gatlinburg-area families. Julie Graham, receptionist at the Holston Conference headquarters in Alcoa, sent almost daily emails to staff and churches with news of the truckloads, boxes and shipments.
“We just received a delivery from Waterbrook Christian Academy near Flint, Michigan,” Graham wrote on Dec. 21. “The kids in that school (who have been through the drinking water crisis) heard about the wildfires and wanted to give back to others because so many people had sent water to them.”
On Dec. 15, Graham reported that 400 shoe boxes filled with toiletries were arriving from South Carolina; baby supplies were arriving from the Alabama-West Florida Conference; and the staff of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in Nashville was sending more than 100 wrapped gifts “plus a large bag of plush toys.”
Many of the gifts were dispensed during an Espiritu Santo party at The Connexion on Dec. 21, preceded by worship and attended by more 200 people, including families whose homes or jobs were disrupted by the fires.
The party was attended by Bishop Dindy Taylor, who served as an assistant to Santa Claus, who was played by the Rev. Rusty Taylor. On the day before the party, the Taylors were joined by Holston staff members to help wrap the gifts. Desserts were provided by Beaver Ridge United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. Volunteers from Fairview United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tenn., help sort gifts donated from Nashville as well as from Memphis and Johnson City, Tenn.
SHIFT TO LONG TERM
With the holiday season speeding by and nearly a month after Sevier County found itself in a crisis, the response emphasis is shifting away from urgent needs and more toward long-term recovery, Holston leaders said.
Dealing with loads and loads of donated items – including used clothing and other items not requested (such as an “igloo cutie” costume and a wooden corn holder) – has pulled volunteers away from other needs and overwhelmed storage space.
“I’ve turned down teddy bears, Christmas gifts, and clothes galore,” Moore said. “Some churches wouldn’t take no for an answer and dumped stuff on us anyway. “
The Rev. Mike Sluder, Holston director of connectional ministries, has made several trips to transport donated items from the Alcoa Conference Center to trailers and warehouses on The Connexion lot in Sevierville.
“We might need to start telling people to hold on to the donated items they’ve collected, because we are running out of storage space and might need those things later on,” he said.
Sevier County pastors will continue to issue requests for specific needs and could also use volunteers to staff outreach centers or locate affordable housing.
In the meantime, financial donations and gift cards enable pastors to meet the unique needs of families in their communities, Holston mission leaders said, while the effort to rebuild and provide housing and new jobs is just getting started and promises to last a long time.
“I’ve had six requests from people today who found a place to go but who need security deposits and first month’s rent,” Moore said. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. If we can be involved in the re-sheltering effort and help some of these people get back to work, then Gatlinburg can bounce back. If not, it’s going to be a drag.”
Displaced immigrants face challenges following fires (WBIR, 12.21.16)
Gatlinburg wildfire victim remembered for kindness (Knox News Sentinel, 12.16.16)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.