ALCOA, Tenn. (Dec. 1, 2016) – Holston Conference leaders are still waiting to learn the status of one last Gatlinburg church and parsonage, while receiving donations and prayerful support from all over the nation and making plans to help victims of wildfires that have devastated parts of Sevier County.
Some of the survivors include United Methodists who lost their homes -- and others who still don’t know if their homes exist -- since fire engulfed the tourist region late on Nov. 28.
“We heard from an eyewitness that our house is standing,” the Rev. Dan Moore, pastor at First United Methodist of Gatlinburg, reported on Facebook on Wednesday night. “Now we are not sure how compromised it may be. We are thankful to God to hear this news. “
Holston Conference leaders said that until last night, they were not optimistic about the survival of the First United Methodist Church parsonage, because churches nearby reportedly did not survive. TEMA has not yet allowed civilians or residents into downtown Gatlinburg, due to active fires and destruction.
The Rev. Dave Henderson, a Holston Conference disaster-relief leader, attempted to reach the church and parsonage on Nov. 30 but had to turn back.
“We’re now hearing the parsonage is there but damaged,” said the Rev. Michael Sluder, Holston director of connectional ministries. “We believe the church is still standing, but none of us have actually seen it.”
All other United Methodist churches and parsonages in the region have been accounted for as safe and undamaged, including Huskey’s Grove and Middle Creek, which were recently added to a list published Nov. 29.
Several leaders of the First Gatlinburg church have already learned their homes did not survive, said the Rev. Charles Maynard, Maryville District superintendent. United Methodists from other Sevier County churches have also lost their homes. Information will be provided soon about how Holston members and others may help.
DONATIONS FROM ALL OVER
Online donations to help fire victims are pouring in through Holston.org from as far away as Oregon, totaling nearly $7,300 this afternoon, staff members said. Some supporters sent messages through the website, offering to send gifts for newly homeless families or to help with clean-up efforts.
“We have several that want to donate toys, baby items, mostly children’s stuff for those children who will have no Christmas,” said a youth pastor from a United Methodist church in Titusville, Fla. “We are touched by what is happening in Tennessee as our church community.”
Several donations of bottled water, sports drinks, energy bars, towels, eye drops, lip balm, fruit, and paper products have filled the entry hall at the Alcoa Conference Center. Twenty-five cases of bottled water arrived from St. Paul United Methodist Church in Wytheville, Va., according to Julie Graham, receptionist.
Holston staff have already delivered some of the supplies to Waldens Creek Fire Department and to organizations (Remote Area Medical, First United Methodist Church of Pigeon Forge) that will distribute the supplies to firefighters, emergency personnel, and others in need.
Other supporters have dropped off checks or called to ask how they can help.
“I’ve had phone calls today from Canada, Illinois, Georgia and Kentucky,” Graham said. “The phone has been ringing off the hook. Most of them have been saying they want to be sure the money goes directly to the victims.”
One woman cried on the phone. “She said she brought her kids to Dollywood, and she couldn’t work without crying and thinking of the place where she spent time with her children," Graham said.
Another man called from an Ohio congregation to say he is bringing a 20-foot truck of supplies next week.
PREPARING FOR HARD WORK
Several United Methodist groups and individuals have contacted the Holston Conference office to offer their help and prayers, including United Methodist Communications, Bishop James Swanson of the Mississippi Conference, and Bishop David Graves of the Alabama-West Florida Conference.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has provided an initial grant of $10,000 for disaster relief, Sluder said.
A representative of the United Methodist Endorsing Agency also called. “They said that Christmas is close, and they knew that families were going to need help," said Sluder.
Holston leaders are meeting some immediate needs while preparing for months of disaster relief and other mission work in Gatlinburg and the rest of Sevier County, Maynard and Sluder said.
In addition to using existing storage at The Connexion, Holston staff are securing more pods to place on the grounds, providing storage for other relief agencies, Sluder said.
First United Methodist Church of Sevierville is preparing to serve as a host site for incoming missions teams.
First United Methodist Church of Pigeon Forge is preparing to serve as a clearinghouse for resources and labor.
Henderson has told UMCOR that Holston disaster-response teams are on standby and awaiting direction from emergency management.
“Things are still changing, and we’re still responding to those changes,” Maynard said.
Fifteen United Methodist pastors in Sevier County are meeting on Saturday, Dec. 3, to worship together and de-brief before standing before their congregations on Sunday.
The Knoxville News Sentinel reported today that the Gatlinburg wildfire death toll has risen to 10.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.