By Paula Schlueter Ross
When Bettie Woods and her then 20-year-old son climbed the basement steps after a tornado blew out every window in their home and dropped a tree through their kitchen ceiling on April 27, 2011, all they saw was sky.
“It was traumatic,” she says of the experience, still a frightening memory. Out in the yard, the mother and son had to climb over huge trees, toppled crisscross in the yard.
“It looked like a bomb had been dropped. It was just a mess,” recalled Woods, a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Birmingham, Ala.
But fellow Lutherans from the Shepherd’s Heart Disaster Response Ministry and volunteers from LCMS congregations came to help with cleanup and removed the tree free of charge. It was a good start.
Today, three-and-a-half years later, the Woods still aren’t back in their home. A building contractor took the home’s insurance money without doing the work.
But the family, once again, has been “blessed” by Lutherans. They received a grant from LCMS Disaster Response this spring that is being used to repair a leaky foundation, replace walls and floors, and complete plumbing and electrical work.
Woods says she is looking forward to moving back into her renovated home by Thanksgiving and is “most thankful” to the Synod for coming to her aid a second time.
“It was a blessing,” she told Reporter. “And it was an encouragement to me, because I didn’t know what to do, or where to go, or how things were going to end. It was a great help.”
The grant to repair Woods’ home is one of many smaller ones distributed by LCMS Disaster Response year-round. The Synod’s mercy ministry is probably better known for committing hundreds of thousands of dollars to headline-making disasters like Superstorm Sandy in the U.S. and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
But smaller grants to assist congregations and individuals are no less important, notes LCMS Disaster Response Director Rev. Ross Johnson.
“Probably half of our money goes to these smaller, individual needs,” Johnson told Reporter. “And just because they’re not in the news doesn’t mean that these disasters aren’t devastating to the people that they affect. Every single one of these people or congregations were in absolute, dire need. They had exhausted their personal resources or congregational resources.
“But because of the generous donations from across the Synod to Disaster Response, we were able to make these congregations and people as whole as we possibly could.”
The Rev. Michael Meyer, manager of LCMS Disaster Response, said, “It’s important to remember that Christ overlooks nobody. No one. And so it’s important for us to remember those individuals that other groups have overlooked.”
One of the more unusual requests for help came from St. John Lutheran Church in Long Beach, Calif., a congregation of fewer than 50 members.
When a Vietnamese member died in a May 13 apartment fire that consumed all of her family’s belongings, the Synod provided a grant to pay the woman’s funeral expenses, and to pay rent and purchase new clothes, furniture, personal items and a computer for her surviving husband and teenage daughter. In fact, the family returned a portion of the grant to be used to help others, according to St. John Pastor Emeritus Rev. Thomas Decker.
The daughter, Feila, is the congregation’s only acolyte, so she and her parents attended worship every Sunday. Feila’s father, Robby Telah, an Indonesian immigrant, works two minimum-wage jobs, but the Telah family “had no money” to pay for a funeral, replace what they had lost or rent an apartment, said Decker. After the death of Nghi Tran, her daughter and husband moved in with separate relatives. Now, with rent assistance from the LCMS, they are able to live together as a family again.
They were “absolutely overwhelmed” to receive the grant, according to Decker, and when his Indonesian friends asked Robby how he was able to rebound so quickly, he said, “Hey, that’s the Lutheran church.”
“I just don’t see how they could have ever made it without this kind of assistance,” the pastor added.
Johnson says such stories illustrate to those who are hurting that “brothers and sisters in Christ are there to support them and to help them through those types of situations. We can’t do everything, but we can do something to help — we can help get people back on their feet, and help congregations so they don’t have to close their doors due to a traumatic financial loss.”
A grant from LCMS Disaster Response “literally saved our church from closure,” according to the Rev. Dr. Karl F. Fry, pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Vermilion, Ohio.
Floodwater 4 feet high in July 2013 ruined St. Matthew’s fellowship hall and everything in it: carpeting, a piano, a TV and walls — a big financial blow to the congregation, which had just repaired its Hurricane-Sandy-damaged roof a month before.
Without help, “it would mean that our mission and ministry would be curtailed, as we would not be able to use the fellowship hall for our outreach activities,” noted Fry. Those activities include a Christian-themed dinner theater, a food pantry, providing coats and other basic needs for local children, and a prayer-shawl ministry.
“Since the repairs have been completed [in November 2013], we have received new disciples through God’s work and love to us as we continue to spread the news of His salvation,” said Fry.
During the 2013-14 fiscal year, LCMS Disaster Response distributed more than $3.5 million in grants to help survivors of disasters large and small, both here and abroad.
Having where-needed-most disaster funds on hand “gives us the agility to respond as needed to each request in a quick and effective manner,” notes Meyer. But the general disaster fund balance “is the lowest it’s been in a number of years,” he said.
Almost all of the funding for LCMS Disaster Response is from charitable donations. Johnson assures donors that “there is always financial accountability that goes along with every single grant that we give — whether it’s to an individual, a congregation, a district or an international church partner.”
He adds that LCMS Disaster Response and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod are becoming more widely known as “someone to help” — which is a good thing.
“It’s a two-edged sword,” Johnson said. “Our reputation for effectiveness also means we’re getting more small requests for help, and because we rely on the generosity of LCMS congregations and their members at all times to meet every single request for help, the Synod must proactively seek donations.”
For more information about LCMS Disaster Response — including how to make a gift to support the Synod’s relief and recovery efforts — visit lcms.org/disaster.
Posted Oct. 1, 2014