'God gave me a hurricane
to show that his love could change my life'

One year after Hurricane Katrina, Holston Conference has logged in more than 4,100 volunteers for the recovery effort. In this special anniversary issue, mission workers share their stories of toil and tenderness in Mississippi.

By Rheta Murry

When members of Sycamore Tree United Methodist Church met to pray about their response to Hurricane Katrina's devastation, little did they know they would literally save a man's life.

Shortly after Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast in August 2005, the Rev. Jeff Wadley and his Maryville District congregation decided to send teams to the area. The first team adopted the Gladios, an elderly couple in Waveland, Miss.

Sycamore Tree raised money for supplies, returning to Mississippi 23 times to help restore the Gladio home. On one such visit, Renalto Gladio talked to two Sycamore Tree volunteers, Kelly Bailes and Brad Klena, as they took a break from working on his home.

"Renalto asked the two men why they kept coming back, why they would accept no money, why they left their homes to come to Mississsippi over and over again," Wadley says.

Bailes told Renalto of God's grace. He explained that "because we are Christians, when you hurt, we hurt." Renalto said he didn't understand this "grace," but was appreciative.

Renalto walked into the shell of his home and came out carrying a semi-automatic hand gun. He loaded the gun and fired it into the air.

The volunteers hit the ground - and waited. They were surprised at what Renalto said next.

"I do not know how to thank you enough. Here, take this gun. I will not be using it for what I had in mind anymore," Renalto said.

Wadley finishes the story: "Kelly accepted the weapon and realized that because they were there, they literally saved his life from potential suicide."

Through the love and assistance, Renalto is now a believer in Christ and plays keyboard for the worship services at a nearby United Methodist church, Wadley said.

It's been one year now since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, wiping out entire communities and filling streets and homes with water. Since then, 203 teams, comprised of 4,160 volunteers have responded from Holston Conference, according to Bonnie Howard, former Volunteers in Mission coordinator. Sixty percent of those workers had never participated on a mission team. (Please see Howard's related story on page 3.)

Meanwhile, Holston members gave more than $1.21 million to the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) for hurricane recovery.

In a recent edition of "News Briefs," Holston's weekly email newsletter, churches were invited to share their stories of teams sent, lives changed, and hearts healed in Mississippi. Many responded.

From Abingdon District, Addilynn Memorial UMC sent a team of 20 people to Vancleave, Miss., in March and are planning to return in October. From Chattanooga District, an 11-member team from Grace UMC worked in Waveland, Miss., during the first part of June. From Cleveland District, Meigs County United Methodist churches sent a team of 19 to Biloxi, Miss., in November.

Also reportedly sending several teams were First Johnson City UMC of Johnson City District and First Farragut and Concord UMC of Oak Ridge District. The Rev. Jerry Everley took 16 students from the Wesley Foundation at East Tennessee State University to help.

The Rev. Paul Hite, pastor at Elk Garden-Dennison UMC, Tazewell District, and a Holston Conference disaster coordinator, said he and several others arrived in Biloxi, Miss., within three weeks of the Aug. 29 disaster.

"I just put a call out in the Tazewell District and several said they could go, so we went," Hite said. "That first time, it was mostly chainsaw work and stuff like that. We were trying to get the debris out of the way. That is all we could do."

Later, Hite took an eight-member team to Pascagoula, Miss., where they did what he called 'turnouts' and 'rebuilds.' The team completed one house so the family could move in. They put up sheet rock and repaired the floors in another. Hite's crew lived with a family, worked on one house beginning at 8 a.m., and on the host family's home each evening, at least until midnight.

Danny Howe, director of missions at First Broad Street UMC in Kingsport District, remembered conversations with people in Gulfport, Miss., while he and three teams helped with disaster relief. More than 30 individuals participated in those teams, mostly college-age people, he said.

"The most important thing was meeting and listening to the coastal people who were deeply affected by this storm and its aftermath," Howe wrote. "Tearfully, they would tell of their losses and how their faith had pulled them through their horrific ordeals. But then, with a look of confidence in their eyes, they would tell you that with God's help, they were going to get through this and rebuild."

An email from Herb Creech of Glen Alpine UMC, Kingsport District, echoed Howe's story. Creech was a part of a group of 22 from five Holston churches venturing to Gulfport in February.

"We left behind homeowners with a little more hope, a little deeper faith that life will return to normal," Creech said. "We also left behind families who were becoming hopeless because of the lack of volunteers or money for materials."

Holston volunteers also wrote that their own lives had been changed because of the hurricane work. Regena Wehunt said she was not attending church when members of Dunlap UMC invited her on a mission trip to the Gulf Coast. She later joined the Chattanooga District church, believing God brought her to that congregation through the Katrina disaster.

"I was so impressed with the love, caring and unselfish people that I traveled with," Wehunt said. "I was particularly struck by the fact that while our government struggled with what to do and who to blame, Christians organized, motivated, and reacted in the most humane ways."

The Rev. Laura Rasor, pastor of Piney Flats UMC in Johnson City District, reported that 27 workers from her church and Edgefield UMC helped with relief efforts in Moss Point, Miss. Rasor's group worked for six different families, rebuilding homes from top to bottom, tearing out walls, and installing electrical wire.

"Amazing things happen on a mission trip," she said. "Strangers become friends, connections are found across differences, and God's spirit makes things happen. All of us who went on the trip have been transformed and ignited by a new fire to serve."

A group from the Englewood and Mars Hill UMC charge, Cleveland District, spent the week of July 4 working on homes in Biloxi, Miss. It was a slow week for recovery coordinators, according to the Rev. David Graybeal. Yet, the Cleveland District group ran into a large team of youth and adults from Church Street UMC in Knoxville District.

"We thought that was pretty cool - that the only two teams at Seashore United Methodist Assembly that holiday week were from the faraway Holston Conference," Graybeal said.

Nancy Saylors participated in three separate mission teams from Middlebrook Pike UMC in Knoxville District, serving hurricane victims in Gulfport and Pass Christian, Miss. Like so many other Holston workers, Saylors and her teammates helped gut and repair homes, locate personal items, and looked for ways to comfort the victims.

"We had never understood what real hope was until it occurred to us that the mess we were creating by tearing out these moldy, wet houses was a form of closure for the people," she said. "The storm was over, and they were beginning life in a new home ..." Saylors said God turned the horrible conditions into a haven for making new friends, teaching her to love in a deeper way. God showed her that all suffering people are her personal responsibility and that she is to help in any way she can.

"He gave me a hurricane to show that his love could change my life and those around me," she said. "He gave me a hurricane that will forever be a personal symbol of his love and power."

Churches didn't just limit their assistance to people in the Gulf Coast area. The Churches and individuals stood ready to help people relocating to their communities. First Newport UMC of Morristown District prayed that God would help two brothers from Mississippi find transportation and jobs. Later, a car salesman who belonged to the church donated a car, while another member located jobs at Wal-Mart. The brothers are now active at First Newport.

Though it's been a year since Katrina, recovery teams are still needed, mission workers reported. Bonnie Howard, now serving the Mississippi Conference as a volunteer coordinator, encourages churches to continue their efforts. Not only are workers needed to install wiring, repair roofs, do plumbing, and repair drywall, volunteers are also needed to offer listening ears and love. Volunteer teams dwindled when school started again, Howard said.

"It gets depressing for us, because we need the teams desperately," Howard said. "The only people who are working here is the faith community - the churches. If it wasn't for the churches they'd not have any help at all."

Rheta Murry is a member of Cokesbury UMC in Knoxville District.

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