Bill and Kay were vacationing in Gatlinburg on April 27, 2011, when they got the news. Their daughter, Kathy, and grandson, Alec, had just survived a fierce tornado by huddling beneath mattresses in the basement of the family’s home. The devastating twister left the house and furnishings in chaos. The neighbors were helping to get Kathy and Alec – a fragile special needs child who lives on life support – to Children’s Hospital.
When Bill and Kay arrived home they faced utter devastation. All that remained of their home and belongings was the clothing they had with them; however, one possession – the love and support of their United Methodist church community – remained stable and unchanged. Caring church members immediately surrounded them. One church family provided Bill, Kay, Kathy, and Alec with a place to live while they were homeless. When Bill found a new home for his family, church members donated clothing, furniture, all manner of home furnishings and equipment, monetary love gifts, and assistance in cleaning and readying the house for occupancy. Throughout this extended time of crisis, the church community maintained a steady outpouring of help and love.
Bill felt enormous gratitude for the support and love from the church community. More important, however, their sustenance gave Bill stability and confidence, and this empowered him to stand tall as a witness to God’s mercy. Bill never thought of himself a victim because their faithful support allowed him to be proactive – to maintain control over the direction his life was taking. Bill describes this condition as being a proactive captive. He was captive to circumstances but could be proactive in overcoming those circumstances.
As Bill would tell you, a vibrant church community plays a vital role during a time of crisis. After a tragic event, people simply cope better when their fellow believers come together to support and uplift them. What a powerful ministry it can be to others when the church community unites and builds trust and hope on which hurting people can draw.
Chester, a church member who recently lost a mother and a sister offers this insight: Knowing that you have a church community to stand beside you gives you courage. You know they are there if you need anything. It’s not what they say, but they show up and their presence lets you know that they love and care about you and what you are going through.
Interestingly, we think of “helping” and “loving” as compassion directed toward others. Here’s a newsflash! Research indicates that engaging in acts of love and compassion produces real physical and mental health benefits us. In other words, finding ways to help others during heartbreak and tragedy is an important way to help ourselves – and everyone in the church community – to become stronger.
Beyond the local church walls, we are members of a larger community of United Methodists as part of the North Alabama Conference. The Conference has a plan and procedures for intervening in times of tragedy. Recently the Conference had plenty of opportunity to put that plan into action as our church experienced a stunning, unexpected tragedy involving our senior pastor. Members and staff were in a state grief and confusion.
Before the tragedy had time to fully sink in that day, the Conference arranged for a team of counselors to be at the church to counsel with staff and members who needed condolence and reassurance. Other Conference personnel convened our ushers and provided guidance for dealing with the inevitable media presence on Sunday. Bishop Wallace-Padgett preached a sermon of comfort in all three Sunday services, while other Conference staff met with Sunday School classes. Within two weeks the Conference had appointed an interim pastor who provides superb and stable leadership. Conference staff is still available to counsel and meet with church staff and church members as the need arises. For me, the Conference was an example of a caring community. Conference staff openly expressed their concern and caring, and provided tangible, ongoing help through their presence and attentiveness.
Following the tragedy, our church experienced tremendous support from the Christian Community as a whole. Churches of every denomination in the surrounding cities and townships immediately offered support and continue to be so. We experienced no negative comments or criticism; rather, they simply reached out to us with tangible gifts, love, and prayers. Churches in other states called to tell us that they are praying for us.
Live life as if it matters. Those words came from a commentary on the May 26 Sunday School lesson. As Disciples of Christ we rely on our faith in Jesus to create meaning in our lives. Being part of a caring community of believers helps us to continue to live life in a way that matters. As a cohesive Christian community, we are a powerful catalyst for healing and wholeness.
To conclude, I’d like to paraphrase Peter von Herrmann, Chair of our Adult Discipleship Team. Peter wrote, "I think the power of community lies in its ability to help us process tragic events, support each other, and find a way to offer hope for the future."
I agree, so, I’ll close with a question and hope that you will share your thoughts with us.
Anne Jolly is a member of Gardendale-Mount Vernon UMC and a serves on the Adult Discipleship Team.