On June 24, a planned brush fire burned out of control, destroying the homes of 36 families and 1,000 acres in Eastpoint, a community of about 2,300 on the Apalachicola River in Florida’s Panhandle.
It has been one more devastating blow to the Franklin County town, where 25 percent of residents live below the poverty level. The famed oyster and seafood industry that sustained them has steadily declined, and the unemployment level is now at 9 percent, well above the state’s 5 percent average.
It’s a disaster for families who had little, and have now lost everything, said Pastor Brian Brightly, who leads both the small First Eastpoint UMC and St. George Island UMC (SGIUMC), a 10-minute drive across the bridge on the Gulf of Mexico.
Although the state is giving emergency cash to families affected by the fire, the local churches have been a lifeline. First Eastpoint UMC and First Baptist Church have collected supplies, while Eastpoint Church of God opened as a Red Cross emergency shelter.
|First UMC Alpharetta, Georgia, donated many items, including school supplies for children.|
“Our SGIUMC thrift store was the connection,” said Brightly, who has led the churches for two years.
“It became a hub because everyone knew where we were, and we know the families. The outpouring was amazing—we were overwhelmed with donations of clothes, shoes, you name it. Everybody worked extra hard those first few weeks, double- and triple-time. There’s a kind of sacredness about the thrift store.”
Parishioners from Methodist churches throughout the state have volunteered help and supplies; Alpharetta First UMC in Georgia delivered 50 backpacks, filled with supplies for children when they return to school in August, and hand-knitted blankets.
Aware that what struggling residents need most is financial assistance to get back on their feet, SGIUMC started the Eastpoint Wildfire Family Disaster Fund, and has raised about $6,000 of its $10,000 goal.
Before coming to North Florida, Brightly spent 13 years as pastor of Boca Grande UMC, on Gasparilla Island near Fort Myers in Southwest Florida.
It was the culmination, he thought, of a career in ministry work throughout the U.S. and the world—Cuba, Jamaica, Africa, and Russia.
That is where he met his wife, Irina, and which he says “really focused me,” as the Cold War was ending and there was a resurgence of religious expression.
“We thought we were going to retire,” he said, “but the churches and community here needed healing.”
Drawing on decades of mission experience, Brightly has helped the churches establish a prison ministry, a partnership with Franklin County Consolidated School’s third-grade teachers and students, an Alcoholics Anonymous weekly meeting, and a yoga and wellness ministry.
By sending volunteers into the school to tutor kids and make sure they had enough to eat, by going into prisons for counseling, life-planning and prayer, Brightly said, “We were able to create a mission focus. So, when the fire hit, we were well-positioned to offer aid.”
|Volunteers are building a new playground at First Eastpoint UMC.|
He described an ecumenical men’s prayer meeting that was a precursor to the prison ministry.
“The sheriff came to a meeting, and he almost wept,” Brightly said.
Later, in prison, “a man told our volunteer that this was the first time anyone had ever hugged him.”
Although people are still largely displaced by the fire, the churches continue to work on long-term community building. At the First Eastpoint church, they’ve nearly completed a playground and are creating the area’s first children’s center, with rooms for daycare and teens.
They are planning for after-school programs, and full-time programs next summer.
“I’m encouraging local churches to ‘adopt’ a family in Eastpoint, to help stabilize and nurture them,” said Brightly. “If we do that, if they see it’s not a hit-and-run, and people aren’t just moving on like they do after a disaster, it will get better.”
Brightly acknowledges the challenge in helping the community create a new foundation. Overcoming poverty and social dysfunction, along with the recent trauma, will be a slow process, but “they’re hungry here.”
“God has given us a reason through mission and insight,” he said. “You have to take the time to change hearts. That’s Methodism. That’s what John Wesley did.”
Donate to the Eastpoint Wildfire Family Disaster Fund.
—Eileen Spiegler is a freelance writer based in Ft. Lauderdale.