Church isn't a building: southwest Georgia congregations continue to serve communities
By Kara Witherow, Editor
Nearly one year after Hurricane Michael destroyed parts of southwest Georgia, blue tarps still dot the landscape. Trees are scattered throughout backyards, and some residents are living in hotels instead of their homes.
Even now, 12 months later, you can’t drive 100 yards without seeing one of the emergency roof coverings or some other sign of the storm. Full recovery will take years, locals say.
At a time when it would be natural for residents to focus on their own recovery, they’ve looked beyond themselves to serve one another, asking how they can be the church in the midst of crisis.
In Donalsonville, nearly 100 miles inland, Hurricane Michael tore through the town, impacting everyone, says Rev. Nate Lehman, pastor of Friendship United Methodist Church.
The strongest storm ever to hit Georgia, Hurricane Michael ripped the carport off the Friendship UMC parsonage, damaged the roof, and tore up trees, but the congregation remains resilient.
They’ve continued to serve their community: the church’s monthly manna drop distributes baskets of food to those in need, the food bank is up and running again, and the church hosts mission teams who come to work in the area.
They even have a new missions building that houses the manna drop, the food pantry, and soon the church’s Christmas store. The hub of the congregation’s outreach program, the 30x60 metal building replaced two storage sheds that were destroyed by the storm. A $10,000 gift from a South Georgia United Methodist congregation helped build it.
“More money came in after that, and we put some in, but the rest was given to us by people in the community and other churches because of what they saw we were doing in the community,” Rev. Lehman said. “It’s all about relationships.”
And in just a few weeks, Friendship UMC will unveil their brand-new shower trailer, one similar to what they used last year when the one loaned to them by Rev. Chris Calhoun was set up in the church’s parking lot and used by congregation and community members after the hurricane.
Designed and built by Blackstone Builders, which is owned and operated by South Georgia pastor Rev. Calhoun, who serves St. Mark United Methodist Church in Douglas, the shower trailer will be used to help communities after disasters.
“The shower trailer was here within the first week (after Hurricane Michael), and one of our members saw how much of a blessing it was,” Rev. Lehman said.
The Friendship UMC congregation loved the shower trailer and wanted one similar: warm, inviting, and comforting. Before he knew it, Rev. Lehman said, $20,000 had been donated to have one built.
“It’s exciting, in the midst of disaster, to see what God is doing and enabling us to do,” Rev. Lehman said. “How does that happen, other than God? God has enabled us to do this. It’s awesome.”
In Colquitt, recovery has been a process, says Colquitt United Methodist Church pastor Rev. Scott Stanfill.
Through it all, though, Colquitt UMC has continued to meet the needs of its community, even as the congregation worships in a temporary location.
The church-run and sponsored thrift store offers clothing and affordable household goods and items to people continuing to try to restore what’s been lost. The congregation has also continued its food ministry, running its monthly food bank from the church parking lot. They’ve regularly served 350 families each month and recently have seen that number increase to 450 families.
Their other outreach ministries continue, too: they assist with medical and utility bills, they hosted a well-attended Fall Festival last year, the United Methodist Men offer prescription medicine assistance, they hosted fun family outings this summer, and they put on a Vacation Bible School with a local Baptist Church.
All of this from a congregation that will, realistically, still be out of its home for another year.
The entire church sustained water damage when Hurricane Michael roared into Colquitt as a Category 3 storm. The shingles were ripped off the roof and water poured into the building, damaging most of the interior. The outside looks great, Rev. Stanfill said, but much of the inside will be new when work is complete.
Currently worshipping in Colquitt First Baptist Church’s chapel, Colquitt UMC hosts their Wednesday evening programming at the Miller County Senior Center.
Colquitt and Miller County have much for which to be thankful, Rev. Stanfill said, and a community-wide worship service is planned for Thursday, Oct. 10, in the First Baptist Church Worship Center.
Rev. Jean Watson is thankful for the way her congregation rallied to serve one another. After the hurricane tore through Colquitt, the Cooks Union United Methodist Church’s driveway was impassable and trees littered the yard. An ERT team from Pierce Chapel United Methodist Church worked to cut and clear trees so the driveway could be accessed and Cooks Union members, along with a few folks from the community, worked tirelessly to clean the yard.
In three days, they had the yard cleared and the church was able to host a funeral.
“It would have been months getting in otherwise,” Rev. Watson said.
Even though the churches and congregations in southwest Georgia are showing that church is not a building but a way of serving and loving others, they still need help themselves.
“I’d love to say it’s a beautiful picture of recovery, but it’s not. It’s a tough place,” Rev. Lehman said. “We are seeing recovery, but it’s so slow and tedious that it’s hard to see it happening.”
Recovery is happening, he said, but just not at the pace that would be seen in more metropolitan areas.
“There are a lot of people who cannot afford to have roofs fixed or mold cleaned up. Because of where we’re at, the resources just aren’t available.”
There’s still heaviness, Rev. Stanfill said, but he believes that will change once work begins and people see progress. While there’s still pain and grief, the congregation and community are strong and their best days are ahead.
“Our faith is one of life out of death and resurrection out of crucifixion, so you can’t have one without the other,” he said. “There’s always a resurrection on the other side when you walk with Jesus, and that’s what we’re going to continue to encourage people to do.”
With much still to be done in Southwest Georgia, The United Methodist Church - through the South Georgia Conference and UMCOR - is still at work. Rev. George Masciarelli, disaster response coordinator for Hurricane Michael, and his team are serving Decatur, Early, Seminole, and Miller Counties. Mr. Ed Haggerty, member of Avalon UMC in Albany, is working with Albany Relief and Recovery in Dougherty County. If you are interested in serving on a work team, contact Emory Smith at (229) 520-2542 or firstname.lastname@example.org.