Modern-day loaves and fishes story: Trenton UMC serves 14,000 meals in dark days after tornadoes

Modern-day loaves and fishes story: Trenton UMC serves 14,000 meals in dark days after tornadoes

TRENTON, Ga. -- The worst of the April 27 tornadoes has been cleared. Like other communities across the Southeast, Trenton is rebuilding and recovering from a stormy season that left a horrific impression on every generation.

Emerging from those dark days of spring 2011 is a story that, for some, helps ease the heartache of lost lives, homes, and possessions. Tim McCarver says it's the story of loaves and fishes that fed hundreds and expressed the love and concern of Jesus.

"I hate the circumstances, but it was one of the biggest personal blessings I've ever received," says McCarver, referring to the 11 days that he and others worked in the kitchen of Trenton United Methodist Church from 4:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

"We cried. We laughed. We joked. We did everything we could to lift people lift up.”

Most of all, they cooked.

Trenton UMC is no stranger to community outreach. In 2008 the Georgia General Assembly recognized the Chattanooga District church for remarkable service, including a benevolence ministry that matches needy people to case workers and a women's mission that houses former inmates in apartments on the church grounds.

Trenton UMC is known as a community helping hub because its leaders are constantly asking, "How can the church help you?" says the Rev. Reece Fauscett. The church has 240 in average worship attendance.

"We just find ways to work that are not particularly religious, but that help people in a real life kind of way," Faucett said. "To me, the local church is not a show horse or race horse. It's a plow mule on the front lines of ministry." (See Annual Conference 2010 video.)

When the massive tornadoes touched down in northwest Georgia on April 27, killing two Dade County residents and traumatizing hundreds of others, Trenton UMC knew what to do.

Some church members picked up chainsaws and other tools to aid neighbors with fallen trees or fallen homes. Others, including the youth, worked in the church gym -- stocking and distributing the food, water, clothing, diapers, and other donations that came pouring in after the media posted photos of Trenton's distress. Mary Avans oversaw the massive outreach ministry. (See Avans' photo.)

"This place was just like a Wal-Mart," says Bryan Contorno, describing how the church transformed into a bustling relief center and shelter overnight. (See Contorno's photo.)

Compassion kitchen

For three days, the church operated without electricity, but that didn't stop the volunteers who found ways to help their community. It didn’t stop Beth McCarver, either.

"I was so devastated. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to lose everything,” she says.

McCarver’s family was safe and her house got by with a few lost shingles. But she was shaken by the 90-minute ordeal to get past wreckage and blocked roads to check on her elderly parents.

"I wanted to do something to help but didn’t have a lot of money.” She did, however, have eight years experience in cooking for about 100 people in the church every Wednesday night. She decided to go to the church and start cooking.

“She couldn’t be anywhere else but at the church,” says her husband. “She was a wreck.”

McCarver took vacation time from her job in a pediatric practice and spoke to fellow members Lee Cureton, Cathy Cureton, and Laura Cross. They agreed to meet in the church kitchen the next morning, the day after the tornado.

The stove was gas-powered, but the church was without electricity. So the first meal cooked was breakfast food rescued from the silent refrigerator and freezer. The crew prepared bacon, eggs, and gravy in a dim kitchen and set it out on tables.

It turned out to be the first course of what seemed like a continuous meal.

“One meal just went into the next,” says McCarver. “It just never ended. When you got to the bottom of the pot for one thing, you started something else.”

When people heard that Trenton UMC was opening its doors as a tornado relief center, they unloaded their powerless freezers and sent the goods over to 12500 North Main Street. McCarver found herself staring at piles of defrosting chicken, fish, and T-bone steaks. She and her co-workers rolled up their sleeves a little higher and dug in.

The cooks cooked, and the people ate. At first the diners were church volunteers; neighbors without electricity; and the newly homeless who were using the church as a shelter.

As word got around, the fellowship hall was filled with emergency and utility workers doing 16-hour shifts, volunteers from other towns, and people hungry for more than just food. (See church photo.)

“You could tell the ones who had lost everything,” says Beth McCarver. “They had a blank stare and were so tired. One woman came in, covered with mud. The windows were blown out of her car. She said she couldn’t find her husband.”

The ministry quickly expanded as more donations came in. Generators were set up and more volunteers came to the kitchen.

“A lot of people came by just to ask, ‘What do you need?’” says Tim McCarver. It was easy enough to say, “We need 200 pounds of potatoes to go with these pinto beans and collard greens,” or, “We need paper products for 1,000.”

Many donations came without request -- with timing that left kitchen workers shaking their heads. Tim McCarver was ready to ask someone to pick up eggs, when a man showed up with a pallet of eggs.

The local Ingles donated loads of pies, cakes, and cookies. Dade County schools unloaded milk cartons and produce from their refrigerators and freezers. The Chattanooga Bike Club brought 600 foot-long sandwiches, 14 cases of bananas, and six cases of grapes left over from a race – in addition to $1,500 in cash.

“A pharmacist from Rossville brought $2,500 worth of  groceries that he bought at Sam’s Club,” says Beth McCarver. “Oh, I wish I had gotten his name … ”

McDonald’s sent five gallons of iced tea each day, and a pediatrician brought fruit from a restaurant in Chickamauga.

One man – an employee from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency – came in late one night. “I heard this was the best place to eat in town,” he said.

An hour later, he gave a cash donation, impressed with the compassion of the United Methodists. “I’ve never seen anything like this, what you’re doing for this community,” he said.

“We looked around at the end of the day to see that we had more than what we started with,” says Tim McCarver. “We were nothing but the hands and feet of God.”

Bus fare

Volunteers from the church showed up, unbidden, to chop vegetables, fry burgers, and wipe off tables. Tim McCarver opened the kitchen at 4:30 a.m. to make coffee, crack 25 dozen eggs, and fry the first of 600 slices of bacon and 200 sausage patties.

By the time Tim headed off to work around 8:30 a.m., Beth and others had arrived to bake 200 biscuits and stir up four gallons of gravy.

As many as eight to 10 people worked in the kitchen at once. “We had people who just came in and washed dishes for days,” Beth McCarver said.

Clay Stewart, a butcher, cut up the whole chickens that were donated. Melissa Reasor looked for recipes to accommodate the canned chicken (18 chicken casseroles) and produce (carrot-raisin salad) that were donated. Reasor also stood over the chicken fryer for hours.

Almost everybody (including Rose Moore, Laurie Stewart, Kermit Vaughan, Alojean Vaughan, and Mike King) helped peel the 50 pounds of potatoes that went into a giant potato salad.

Nothing was wasted. Sausage biscuits, hamburgers, and hot dogs were wrapped and delivered to people working on power lines or broken homes.

When Pastor Fauscett asked Chris and Heather Chance to work with the Red Cross in delivering food to outlying areas, the couple borrowed the rickety old school bus that serves as the band bus for Dade County High School.

The Chances are the school’s band director and assistant director. “They drove the wheels off that bus,” Fauscett says with a grin. (See Fauscett's photo.)

With the help of church youth and band students whose schools were closed, the Chances and their four-year-old daughter Makaela delivered meals, water, and tarps. They traveled 12 hours a day and made stops in Ringgold, Ga., and Higdon, Ider, Bridgeport, Pisgah, Flat Rock, Sulphur Springs, and Shiloh in Alabama.

They discovered many residents in remote areas had barely eaten since the tornado, afraid to leave their damaged property for fear of looters.

“People were just coming up and hugging us,” says Chris Chance, describing the residents’ reaction when teenagers poured out of the bus, carrying casseroles in big disposable pans.

“When we went to Shiloh, the town was just gone, so we went from driveway to driveway instead of house to house.” The gas was paid by the band boosters club and other donations made to the church. (See photo of the Chances.)

At the end of the long day – with breakfast transitioning into lunch and dinner, and with desserts on the tables from morning to bedtime – the Trenton UMC  kitchen began to shut down around 10 p.m.

But inevitably, somebody came in hungry or requesting food for a newly discovered hungry family. There was no hesitation but to “fire the stove back up and fry some burgers,” says Tim McCarver.

“We fed people for as long as we could – we think as many as 1,000 to 1,500 meals a day,” he said. The final estimate, after 11 non-stop days, was 14,000 meals served. Beth McCarver says she can still smell the chicken frying.

Trenton members received a lot of instant feedback on their ministry’s impact – in the hugs and donations and joy of seeing tables full of guests. Tim McCarver, a newcomer to the church after marrying Beth in October 2010, says he appreciates how friendships grew stronger while the cooks and servers worked like a mission team.

More feedback will trickle in for years to come  – from strangers remembering how human kindness was shared in the awful days after nature behaved so cruelly.

Fauscett was recently visiting the hospital when a man stopped to talk. The man said that he and his family had lost their homes and his elderly mother had suffered a stroke. But during the tragedy, he was cheered by the old school bus that had shown up from Trenton United Methodist Church.

“Thank you for the hot meal,” the man told the pastor. “It was the first I had in three days. It really mattered.”

See also:

  • "Holston grieves, prays, prepares to help community after storms" (The Call, 4/28/11)