Updated at 5:30 p.m.
After years of sending aid to disaster victims as far away as Indonesia and as near as Nashville, Holston Conference woke up in its own regional crisis after destructive storms on April 27.
Tornadoes and storms have claimed not only property but a total 318 lives across the southeast, according to the AP.
Thirty-four deaths are reported in Tennessee, including six in Greene County. Three were members at Mount Tabor United Methodist Church in Greeneville: Marty and Brenda Myers and Gene Harrison. Another Mount Tabor member is hospitalized in the ICU, according to the Johnson City District office.
Five deaths are currently reported in Virginia, including four in Glade Spring. The Abingdon District community sustained brutal damage, said District Superintendent Mike Hubble.
"By far the hardest hit area was around exit 29 at Glade Springs," he said. "A truck stop, motel, factory, and number of homes were destroyed. The storm scattered semi-trucks along the Interstate. It is the most devastating thing I have ever seen."
Seventeen miles south of Chattanooga -- bordering Holston but located in the North Georgia Conference -- a massive tornado killed eight in Ringgold, Ga. A total of 15 died in Georgia, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
While tending to their own damaged churches and shattered communities, Holston congregations began organizing yesterday to aid neighboring towns that were even harder hit.
'Sorrow and sadness'
While his staff gathered information about the region's losses and needs, Bishop James Swanson extended prayers and sympathy.
“Our hearts and prayers are with all the victims of the violent storms that have ripped apart so many of our Holston Conference communities and indeed across the southern states," Swanson said. "On behalf of the people of Holston Annual Conference, I share the sense of deep sorrow and sadness generated by this tragic storm." See complete statement.
Numerous churches and properties were heavily damaged, including Camp Lookout near Rising Fawn, Ga.
"[Director] Don and Jackie Washburn and their staff remained safe in their basement retreat as the storms rolled over the camp," the Rev. Randy Pasqua said in an emergency e-mail to camp board membersl.
"Both the electricity and water supply systems are out because of downed and uprooted trees. Several buildings have been impacted by downed trees. Parts of the forest are now lying on the ground." Pasqua is director of Holston Conference Camp and Retreat Ministries.
Church members on Facebook shared photos of Lookout's damage and called for supporters to help the Chattanooga District camp recover in time for summer camp season. (See photo.)
The north Georgia part of Chattanooga District was most severely affected, church leaders reported.Trenton UMC is serving as an emergency shelter. Thousands are without power and not expected to regain it for days.
"The grill, camp stove, and gas water heater make it bearable," said the Rev. Wayne Cook, pastor of Sand Mountain, Morganville, and Slygo Valley UMC.
In Cleveland District, the Broad Street UMC parsonage used by the Rev. Reed Shell was uninhabitable.
Apison was the hardest hit within the district, according to the district office, but the Rev. Todd Chancey of Apison UMC was safe and working to supply generators to seven families with damaged homes. Three families completely lost their homes, Chancey said.
Also in Cleveland District, both Piney Grove UMC and Mt. Zion UMC had roof damage and multiple trees on the ground. Thousands are without power, including district Administrative Assistant Carol Underdown, "and we probably will be for several days," she said.
From smashed roofs to fractured fingers
In Maryville District, Middlesettlements UMC and New Salem UMC lost windows to hail storms. New Salem also had siding damage and residents outside of Madisonville are without power, said the Rev. Carol Wilson, Maryville District superintendent.
Frank Mason, pastor at Pleasant Hill UMC in Maryville, reported that a tree had damaged his home's roof.
In Knoxville District, Washington Pike UMC got a taste of danger two days before Wednesday's tragic storms, when strong winds sent a 100-year-old oak tree crashing into the sanctuary on April 25. (See UMNS photos.)
Church Street UMC experienced fallen trees, broken windows, several leaks and water damage, and damage to the slate room, said Communications Director Teresa Williams.
Also, "our largest stained glass window, centrally located above the altar, looks like someone threw six baseball through it," Williams said.
Three churches lost their steeples and sustained other major damage: Mount Tabor (Greeneville) and Pleasant Hill (Ebenezer Circuit) in Johnson City District, and Tate's Chapel (Saltville) in the Abingdon District.
See photos of Mount Tabor UMC and Pleasant Hill UMC.
Also in Johnson City District, the roof was "peeled" from the main building and community center at Liberty Hill UMC, causing water damage, Administrative Assistant Betty Barton said.
Morristown District reported that a tree had fallen on the fellowship hall of Woodlawn UMC.
In Big Stone Gap District, Pastor Ronnie Duncan of Crab Orchard/South Coeburn UMC suffered cuts on his head, hands, and arms while attempting to take cover from golf-size hail and high winds. His wife, Dawn, also had cuts and two fractured fingers.
"We lost power and spent the night in the basement by candlelight," Duncan said. "In the morning we crawled out and found extensive damage to our home and cars. God is good -- made it through another trial. Pray for us."
Preparing to help
Holston's Disaster Response Team made immediate preparations to assist storm victims. In news releases sent to local media, Bishop James Swanson offered the team's services throughout Holston's 899-church region.
In addition to Trenton, several churches opened their doors to displaced residents, including Abingdon, Asbury (Greeneville), and Limestone.
Volunteers from the Virginia Conference were preparing to assist storm survivors in the southern part of the state within the bounds of Holston, according to United Methodist News Service.
Students from Emory & Henry College were transported to nearby Glade Spring to assist with clean-up. The college's King Center gymnasium was opened as a shelter, and students held an evening prayer vigil. (See story on ehc.edu.)
On the night of the storm, E & H fraternity brothers helped Glade Spring residents escape their crumpled homes, according to a Tri-Cities.com story.
Students from the Wesley Foundation at University College of Wise collected 1,375 personal hygiene items and $300 for Glade Spring residents, according to the Rev. Beth Tipton, director.
Students from the Wesley Foundation at University of Tennessee in Chattanooga quickly arranged an April 30 work day at Camp Lookout.
Chainsaws and baby formula
Volunteers from The Remedy in Maryville District gathered chainsaws, generators, tarp, food, water and money for Ringgold victims. Led by the Rev. Jeremy LaDuke, the volunteers coordinated with the locally based Origin Church to assist residents, since the town was closed except to emergency personnel.
Trinity UMC in Greeneville began collecting clothing for storm survivors, and New Salem UMC in Chattanooga District offered its clothes closet to needy neighbors.
"We are located on Lookout Mountain, above Trenton, Ga.," said New Salem Pastor Mark Kilbourne. "It's a natural distribution point for those affected in the area. We are currently accepting clothing donations, and anyone needing clothing should contact the church [423-903-7762]."
The Chattanooga District office announced that most of city's home population had lost their tents during the storms; the Rev. Barry Kidwell was accepting donations and other assistance.
The Rev. Mark Wills said that his friends from Vanderbilt Divinity School were reviving a 2010 fundraising campaign that gave home-repair gift cards to spring storm victims in Nashville.
"They want to bless East Tennessee [with gift cards] after all they did for Nashville last year," said Wills, pastor at Carter's Valley Circuit in Greeneville.
Wills also confirmed that one of his parishioners had lost a family member to fatal injuries received during a tornado.
The Rev. Lew Kizer, pastor at Hardins Chapel and Mosheim Central in Greeneville, said his congregations would collect diapers and baby formula for local families this Sunday.
The congregation at Clear Springs UMC invited members from the damaged Liberty Hill church to join them for Sunday worship, said Clear Springs Pastor Adam Love.
Throughout the turmoil and after, Holston members lifted public prayers -- and were prayed for.
"Lord, please be with the grieving, with linemen, emergency response, police, fire, EMT, highway, tree cleanup, hospital workers ... those who are waking to discover their livelihood threatened and their homes and belongings damaged," the Rev. Stephen Burkhart prayed on the morning after the storm via Facebook. "Go before them, travel with them, work beside them, strengthen then from within, encourage them as they encounter their people."
From the East Africa Conference, while the storm still raged, an e-mail quietly traveled from Kampala, Uganda, to Holston computers throughout east Tennessee.
The e-mail was addressed from Bob Kisubi, East Africa's director of communications, education, and planning, whom has long worked with Holston members to aid the suffering people of south Sudan.
"Dear Friends, we have just learned of the bad weather that has hit the Southern States," Kisubi wrote."We do pray that all our friends are safe. It is our prayer that the storm/tornadoes subside and the weather improves soon.
"We remain in prayer with all of you at this trying moment."
- To provide immediate spring storm aid, please give to UMCOR.
- Pastors and congregations in need of disaster aid may contact the Connectional Ministries office by email or at (866) 690-4080.