As Hurricane Gustav approached the Gulf Coast last weekend, several Holston churches were alerted that the Red Cross might call on them to host evacuees.
The Rev. Tom Seay's church was the only one that got company, for an indefinite stay.
Since 12:30 a.m. Sunday morning, Colonial Heights United Methodist Church has hosted between 180 to 190 evacuees from the New Orleans area. They arrived by bus, after flying into Knoxville's McGhee-Tyson Airport, according to Senior Pastor Seay.
The Kingsport District congregation was alerted about the evacuees' impending arrival on Friday. They scrambled to be prepared with volunteers and paperwork, Seay said. Colonial Heights was identified as a host site because it has showers, large bathrooms, and ample space where evacuees can eat and sleep in separate rooms.
Still, the congregation has had to adjust to having 180+ guests by giving up Sunday school classes and working around the clock to cook and clean bathrooms, Seay said.
"Our kitchen crew has given and given and given. It's been quite amazing," he said.
The Red Cross will reimburse for damages, utility use, and groceries. However, at 6 a.m. when breakfast needs to be on the griddle, it's not always possible to follow necessary procedures to secure reimbursements, Seay said.
Mafair UMC has donated funds to help compensate Colonial Heights, and First Broad Street, Rock Springs, Pactoulus, Vermont, and Ketron United Methodist churches have offered volunteer crews.
The evacuees have been "overwhelmingly gracious and positive," Seay said. "They love it here. One man said, 'Pastor, I'm going to come back here and live. I've never been around people so nice. It's not just the church people, it's everybody.'"
Ages range from the infant who was 11 days old when he arrived, to several elderly, handicapped persons. Seay was asked to marry two evacuees, which he did on Wednesday, and on Friday night, he will baptize a man and his 11-month-old baby.
The newlyweds explained that they had wanted to get married for a while, and decided to take advantage of the time on their hands and the available pastor. The man who wants to be baptized "got to worrying about everything and had time to do something about it while he was here," Seay said. He recently made a profession of faith in New Orleans.
Church members received guidelines from the Red Cross about not evangelizing in the sleep area and taking a "low key" approach to faith sharing, Seay said.
However, some evacuees requested Bibles, which church members enthusiastically gave them. Seay was asked for a King James Bible, which he expected to loan, but when the woman asked him to sign it for her, he realized the Bible was "going to be a gift," he said.
The church choir gave an "impromptu concert" on Wednesday night, and "our people have hung around and talked when they wanted to talk," the pastor said. "Our people have reached out in great ways to serve them."
Seay still isn't sure when the guests will return home, but he expected to hear soon, and knows they will remain in the Kingsport area at least through Saturday morning or Sunday. Plans are being made to include the evacuees in Sunday morning activities, if they wish.
Visit United Methodist News Service for other stories on how the UMC is serving hurricane victims.