Response shows connection at work, strength of small church

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Response shows connection at work, strength of small church

Sept. 27, 2008  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0918}

An e-Review Feature
By Mary Lee Downey**

Radical hospitality — it’s one of the five practices of The Methodist Way and the focus of five events being held throughout the Florida Conference this fall and in early 2009.

The Rev. Shirley Groom (left) speaks with a wildfire evacuee. Photo courtesy of Florida Conference Disaster Recovery Ministry. Photo #08-1006. Web photo only. For longer description see photo gallery.

It’s also a practice members of Fellowship United Methodist Church in Palm Bay have already embraced and put to work in their community. And the effects of what they’ve been able to do are still being felt.

The fires that occurred in Florida earlier this year gave them that opportunity, and although that natural disaster is almost a distant memory for most Floridians given the recent storms of this year’s hurricane season, they’re still on the minds of church members and Palm Bay residents.

In May, during the height of wildfire season, fires burned across the state, including one in Palm Bay. It charred 3,500 acres and damaged or destroyed 162 homes, according to news reports. Damage estimates ranged from a low of $4.2 million to a high of $9.6 million. All Pam Bay schools were closed, and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency for the area. Officials suspected arson as the cause. 

Fellowship United Methodist Church was right in the middle of it.

Unaware of the fire’s impact, members met that Sunday — Mother’s Day — for worship, praying for rain to alleviate the state’s drought and the area’s dry conditions, according to the Rev. Shirley Groom, the church’s pastor. By Monday it was clear the fires were beginning to get out of hand.

“By Tuesday morning there was that desire that we needed to do something,” she said.

On behalf of the church’s 130 to 140 members, Groom contacted the Palm Bay Chamber of Commerce, of which the church is a member, and asked how they could help. She was told volunteers and firefighters needed food.

Because the church doesn’t have cooking facilities, Groom wasn’t sure how to proceed, so she called her district’s disaster recovery coordinator, Patti Aupperlee. Just as she was making the call, she received an e-mail from Aupperlee asking if the church needed assistance with anything — the Atlantic Central District had been contacting churches in the area they thought might be affected.

Here is a little struggling church that decided to be Christ in their community in such a way that the community was both amazed and grateful.

— Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins

Aupperlee says it was a “God thing.” Groom says the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

The connection at work

In the span of 15 minutes Aupperlee had contacted representatives from First, St. Paul and Suntree United Methodist churches in Melbourne and let Groom know help was on the way.

“ … I knew that the Methodist church could help,” Groom said. “And, boy, did we come through with flying colors.”

The four churches ended up providing lunch and dinner that day, and by Thursday night they had served hundreds of residents.

“In this situation it worked beautifully,” Aupperlee said. “I knew who was active with disaster ministries and who would respond the quickest.”

Aupperlee said “these things” only happen because of existing relationships and “the willingness to communicate with each other before disaster happens.”

Because of the churches’ response, Fellowship was asked to take on a much larger responsibility.

The city needed a distribution center to provide food and supplies for misplaced victims of the fire and asked Fellowship if it would be willing to assume that role. “The high school was supposed to be a shelter,” Groom said. “It caught on fire, so they needed a distribution center.”

The church had never provided that kind of assistance, but with help from the Florida Conference Disaster Recovery Ministry and other churches Fellowship’s members quickly put together a team.

“We learned a lot of things,” Groom said. “Even if you aren’t burned out, the fire knocked out all electrical and you have no power. For 48 hours you have no food, and you have no water because they run on electrical pumps.”

Greg Harford (left) and volunteer Samantha Aupperlee unload a donation of diapers from a local Baptist church at Fellowship United Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of Florida Conference Disaster Recovery Ministry. Photo #08-1007. Web photo only. For longer description see photo gallery.

The team also learned to rely heavily on God for supplies. “We were having a hard time getting donations for food — it was non-stop,” Groom said. “No sooner we would say we were out of food, three trucks would pull in from various businesses, and it ran that way all through the night. As the need arose God provided.”

Small church, big response

Families continued to flock to the distribution center, and by the time more help arrived the church had already made progress in organizing the center.

“It was just amazing,” said Greg Harford, a representative of the conference disaster recovery ministry.

Aupperlee agrees. “By the time Greg and I went to Palm Bay, to help out the next morning, they were well on their way,” she said. “This is a great example of breaking that old adage that small churches aren’t able to provide like large churches.”

Aupperlee believes the connectionalism of The United Methodist Church enables churches of any size to meet their community’s needs.

“They (Fellowship) were willing to open up to the connection, and they operated as if they were one of the largest churches in the world,” Aupperlee said. “In disaster coordinating we can see where one is lacking, and by working together we are able to fill that gap.”

Being ‘radical’

Pam Garrison, manager for the conference disaster recovery ministry, says the response to the wildfires was an example of radical hospitality in the church. “Hundreds of families were served, and served in practical ways and with the gift of hospitality,” she said.

The Rev. Jeff Stiggins, director of the conference Office of Congregational Transformation, agrees. “Here is a little struggling church that decided to be Christ in their community in such a way that the community was both amazed and grateful,” he said in an e-mail to e-Review.

Fellowship United Methodist Church was overflowing with supplies for wildfire victims at its distribution center. Photo courtesy of Fellowship United Methodist Church. Photo #08-1008. Web photo only. For longer description see photo gallery.

Groom said the experience gave her a new perspective on ministry. “I can’t begin to tell you how impressed I was with the connections of this church, people with knowledge, people with willing hearts,” she said. “Our resources were not just limited to The United Methodist church. It opened my vision to looking at God’s whole community.”

Over a four-day period the church and its connectional partners helped 401 families, or nearly 3,378 people. And because of its well-organized response, Fellowship has seen an increase in membership.

“Because of the outreach we actually brought in three families. Four were professions of faith,” Groom said. “These families had come to help and had seen a church ‘do something.’ ”

Groom understands firsthand the importance of being connected and the impact it can have on people’s lives.

“In this day and age, it’s nice to know we can do stuff with others,” Groom said.  “We can work together for the kingdom.”

Information about the radical hospitality events being held across the conference is available at


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Downey is a freelance writer based in Kissimmee, Fla.

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