Rush of Relief

It was two months ago today that tornadoes left paths of destruction throughout our Annual Conference. This week I want to share with you a news story that was recently in The United Methodist Reporter describing how our new campus minister at the University of Alabama Wesley Foundation Rev. Creighton Alexander was able to mobilize student volunteers from Wesley Foundations at colleges and universities around the U.S. to come serve in Tuscaloosa in the early days following storms. Our United Methodist connectional system is still at work responding to these storms and will be for the long haul! – Will Willimon

Rush of relief: Student volunteers aid in Alabama response

By Mary Jacobs
Staff Writer
The United Methodist Reporter

If there’s a “silver lining” in the terrible storms that struck the Southeast on April 27, it’s the story of how the United Methodist connectional system quickly mobilized churches and volunteers to provide disaster relief.

One powerful example comes from the Wesley Foundation at the University of Alabama. Heeding an invitation issued by “Bama Wesley” just days after the storm, dozens of student volunteers from Wesley Foundations at colleges and universities around the U.S. have already traveled to Alabama to help with cleanup and relief.

Although it’s located in Tuscaloosa—one of the areas hardest hit by the swath of tornadoes—the Wesley Foundation’s building escaped major damage. So the Rev. Creighton Alexander, the foundation’s director, put out a call via Facebook and email inviting students at other Wesley Foundations to come, help with the relief and cleanup work in Tuscaloosa and stay at the Wesley facility. (The Foundation was without power for days, but he was able to get the word out by way of his cellphone.)

Students answered the call. Mr. Alexander says the Foundation has already hosted eight groups, and he expected a total of at least 20 groups will visit over the summer. Students are coming in from the campus ministries at the University of Oklahoma, Purdue University, Mercer University in Macon, Ga., LaGrange College, Winthrop University, Texas Tech, Ole Miss and others.

Andrew Ferdon, 21, a civil engineering major at Purdue University, joined a group if 17 young people, 14 of them students from Purdue’s Wesley Foundation, that traveled to Tuscaloosa in early May.

“When we heard about the storms, we decided we’d like to go to help, but most of the agencies we called needed trained individuals,” he said. “But Creighton said he’d love to have us.”

Mr. Ferdon said there was a week between final exams and the time when most students would start summer school or summer jobs. They gathered chain saws and other tools and headed to Alabama.

The Purdue students brought more than just willing hands and strong backs. Churches in the Lafayette, Ind., area—Asbury UMC, First UMC-West Lafayette and Trinity UMC—donated $3,000 to cover expenses and to help with relief work.

“I feel like I’ve been blessed in my life,” Mr. Ferdon said. “That blessing gives me a challenge to help others, and this was just an opportunity to help.”

Connections in place

For the past few years, Mr. Alexander has participated in Refresh, an annual gathering of United Methodist campus ministers sponsored by the Foundation for Evangelism. Connections made at those gatherings, he said, made it easy for him to extend an invitation to other Wesley Foundations to come to Tuscaloosa.

Many adult United Methodist volunteers are pouring into Tuscaloosa; many of them staying at FUMC Tuscaloosa. The Wesley Foundation was not only able to utilize student volunteers—most of whom did not have prior emergency response training—but also provided those students with a faith-inspiring experience.

“I know it’s a little weird to say this, but we’re having a blast,” Mr. Alexander said. “The students are doing a great job of taking care of people, and they’re having fun doing it.”

Volunteers are sleeping in a makeshift dorm, on cots, sleeping bags and inflatable mattresses. They eat their meals at FUMC Tuscaloosa, and worship together on Tuesday evenings.

Gabriela Law, 21, a biochemistry and molecular biology major at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., traveled to Tuscaloosa in mid-May along with eight other Mercer students.

“At first, it was overwhelming,” she said. “I had no idea that there was this kind of destruction.”

Still, she left Tuscaloosa uplifted. “The way the community is coming together is really impressive,” she said. “To see God bringing people together through a horrible situation is amazing, and it’s something you want to be a part of.”

Wesley hosts the students in its facility, and the Southwest District of the North Alabama conference puts them to work on projects around the area. Some students helped staff a supply distribution center at nearby Hargrove Memorial United Methodist Church; others have spent their days clearing away trees.

Mr. Ferdon says he’s mastered the chain saw in Tuscaloosa, noting the area seemed to have a lot of trees—and most of them were felled wherever the tornadoes ripped through.

Zac Head, a sophomore at the University of Alabama, lives in Tuscaloosa. His home escaped major damage. After the storm, he and a friend carried sandwiches, chips and bottles of water to people in the areas most affected.

He says the influx of fellow Wesley Foundation students was encouraging, and for those Alabama students, like him, who were not displaced, the opportunity to help has proved to be healing as well.

“The best word for the situation here, in the first few days, was chaos,” he said. “But as long as we’re helping others, I know that God will help me through this situation.”

Plenty left to do

There’s room for more groups of students, Mr. Alexander said, who’d like to come to Tuscaloosa later this summer. (To inquire, email him at creightonalexander@gmail.com.) He says volunteers can expect to do hard, physical work—they’re still focused on removing trees and sorting debris—and promises there will be plenty of work to do throughout the summer.

“The Southwest District is doing an incredible job of coordinating volunteers,” he said. “No one is going to be idle.”

The work is hard, but the fellowship among students has been memorable.

“We connected with kids from several different schools,” Mr. Ferdon said. “It was cool meeting kids from other parts of the country who have the same willingness to do God’s work.”

“This generation, they really want to help,” Mr. Alexander said. “Their compassion and passion to help is inspiring.”

How to help

Those who can’t come but would like to pitch in for resources to help the students in their relief work may donate at www.bamawesley.org.

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