Ongoing relief efforts for Haitian earthquake victims are not exclusive to the devastated island where an estimated 600,000 persons remain homeless.
|Part of the repair scheduled for St. John's Haitian Mission|
New opportunities to help abound right here on the Florida peninsula, made easier through the Conference’s merger of its Disaster Recovery Ministry within the Ministry Protection Department earlier this year. A new initiative approved by the Florida Cabinet demonstrates the synergy of the merger: volunteers helping to repair Haitian churches facing difficult times because of what has happened to family members back in their native land. Teams already are being assembled for a pilot project to kick off during October at St John’s Haitian Mission in Boynton Beach, a coordinated effort between the merged departments, the Conference Treasurer’s Office, the Atlantic Central District and St. John’s itself.
“The goal is to organize the work so that the project is completed within a three-to-four week time period, rather than a sort of ‘stop/start’ timeframe based on team availability,” said Pam Garrison, Manager of Disaster Recovery Ministry. “That seemed like it would be better for the church and more encouraging for all involved as well. It’s such a great location to start. It’s an old model of planting churches where it’s in a neighborhood with 16,000 Haitians, who are the fastest growing ethnicity in Palm Beach County.”
Garrison observed that when volunteers become trained for Early Response Teams (ERTs), having the opportunity for “doing something locally helps keep interest in their team and brings in new people who maybe want to explore it. It helps the teams start to gel. It’s a great way to keep their skills up and be prepared when disasters happen.” Local projects also benefit those who come forward to be trained when a disaster strikes, but find the crisis already has passed by the time the training takes place.
“Everybody needs to be prepared in advance for disaster. That’s true for all of us; the time to look for those special papers is not when the tornado siren is going off,” Garrison continued. “Beyond that, our hope is that this will connect our churches locally within the Conference—and cross those ethnic lines that sometimes can be so scary to us, where we learn each other’s cultures and realize we’re all God’s people. Hopefully that also provides a background; that if these folks want to go down to Haiti and work, they have a better understanding of the culture they are going up against.”
Garrison emphasized that the planned work on local Haitian churches “is not a handout. It’s a hand up, an opportunity to come alongside some folks from a different culture and help them learn how to take care of a church building, help them learn what it takes to be a good steward of what God has provided to us. What we’re trying to get all of our teams away from is that missionary mindset that ‘we come in and we tell you how to do it.’ This is a partnership. It’s about getting connected and developing relationships.”
Funding for the project emerged from the Conference’s ongoing work with South Florida Urban Ministries to help the agency gather some information for a United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) grant. One hundred percent of UMCOR contributions go to the designated disaster.
“We’re asking UMCOR to fund something happening in Florida that somehow was a result of the earthquake, which it was,” Garrison asserted. “It’s refugees coming to Florida who were in the earthquake, and families here who are no longer able to be supported by families in Haiti.”
Disaster Recovery Area Representative Greg Harford, who served on a Conference mission team that traveled to Haiti earlier this year, is organizing the disaster recovery volunteers for the work in Boynton Beach.
“People are excited,” she said. “The more we tell people across the Conference what we’re trying to do, the more it makes so much sense to people. We are reaching across congregation to congregation.”
Mark Thomas, Conference Director of Ministry Protection, added, “This Haitian church pilot is a good example of thinking outside the box, between Ministry Protection and Disaster Recovery and whatever church we are talking about. It’s about utilizing the connectional nature of the Methodist church for everybody’s benefit. With this issue, the Haitian church gets very much needed work done on their facility, which makes it more comfortable for their congregation and staff. It will provide a safer space for their ministry. It’ll also harden the building against weather events.”
At the same time, Thomas noted, “the Disaster Recovery volunteers get some real-world experience in what they do: disaster response and recovery. That experience will give then invaluable practice in a whole list of things: communications, logistics, responding to the individual needs of a congregation and their physical facilities.
“It does reflect the ongoing commitment and partnership of Ministry Protection and Disaster Recovery, to provide unique, meaningful resources, capabilities and assistance to local congregations. The better all churches are hardened and able to withstand storms, the better the whole Conference and all the churches look to the insurance companies—which results in less premiums. And the safer all the buildings are can result in fewer claims,” he said.
Plenty of churches operate community initiatives involving taking care of a variety of small projects for locals, Thomas said, but many of these same congregations often do not have the resources to look inward and help their own facilities. “Meanwhile, we have churches with a huge amount of volunteers and capabilities and need some practice and a way to put their skills and ministry to work.”
Florida Conference Treasurer of Administrative Services Mickey Wilson said he wants “zero credit” for the new initiative, praising Garrison, Harford and Thomas for their creative approach to helping Haiti. Wherever the need might arise across the Conference, Wilson said, “we have groups of willing Methodists who are anxious to help.”
“The funding is the minimum here. The majority of the cost is in labor, which is supplied by these individual churches (who are sending work teams). It certainly doesn’t cost much for a gallon of paint,” Wilson observed.