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United Methodists travel to Dominican Republic to help storm survivors

United Methodists travel to Dominican Republic to help storm survivors

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

United Methodists travel to Dominican Republic to help storm survivors

Dec. 11, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0773}

An e-Review Feature
By Steven Skelley**

On Oct. 29 Connie DiLeo watched as floodwaters reached the roofs of the houses around her and mud filled the homes.

Susan Keith, a member of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Clearwater and part of an emergency mission team that traveled to the Dominican Republic in November after Tropical Storm Noel hit the area, said the optimism and faith of survivors was “our reason for not losing hope.” Photo by Susan Keith. Photo #07-0713.

The cause was Tropical Storm Noel, which hit Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where DiLeo, from Largo, Fla., currently serves as a missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries. The storm generated deadly levels of rainfall that killed more than 115 people in the Dominican Republic alone.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has been responding, bringing aid through local churches and mission teams from the United States, including a 10-member team organized by the Florida Conference’s New Covenant United Methodist Church in The Villages, near Leesburg.

Despite the devastation, team member Susan Keith from Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Clearwater said the team arrived to find storm survivors smiling and waving and with a firm faith in God.

“Even two weeks since the last rain, the mud was wet,” she said. “I ventured into the village and was greeted not by tears and moans and groans, but with smiles and waves. In the midst of their tragedy, the people were smiling.”

Keith said people were already hard at work when they arrived in November, shoveling mud from their homes and “shaking their heads and telling us that mud was everywhere and that much was lost, but God was good.”

“They were alive,” Keith said. “Their loved ones were alive, and God had protected them. This broke my heart — the faith of these people. Oh, if I could have such trusting faith in God.”

Digging out of the mud

The team focused on the villages of La Hoya, which team members described as covered in “putrid water,” and Bombita, which had been hit with up to 18 inches of heavy mud that inundated homes and local facilities. DiLeo works in both communities with Community Partners Development Program (COPA), which has built Christian schools and clinics in Bombita and La Hoya to minister to the area’s large number of Haitian migrant workers and their families, many of whom already lived in squalid conditions.

COPA was founded simultaneously in The United Methodist Church in Florida and Methodist Church in England and works through the Evangelical Church of the Dominican Republic, according to Sebert Lane, who co-founded the organization. Lane had just arrived in Florida on holiday from his home in England when the storm hit. He traveled as part of the mission team to the area.

“It (COPA) started in 1991 when my wife, Doreen, and I first visited the Dominican Republic,” Lane said. “We found just 40 children in a one-room school in the village of La Hoya. Hundreds more children could not go to school, as there was no room.”  

Lane says he and his wife felt called by God to work with the community to build a Christian school. Within three years, he says, there were nearly 450 children in the COPA school, and a clinic was added to meet the area’s health needs. A second school and clinic were built in Bombita.

“Rev. Connie DiLeo and a COPA staff of eight lay workers drawn from the U.S.A. and the U.K. reach out to meet needs and to spread the good news of the love of Jesus Christ, particularly through work with young people,” he said.

Mudslides caused by Tropical Storm Noel filled homes, like this one in Bombita, Dominican Republic, and surrounding facilities with tons of mud, destroying residents’ belongings. Photo by John Sandlin. Photo #07-0714.

The storm hit two of the COPA schools and clinics directly, damaging or destroying furniture, computers and equipment, and every house in the village was under water, according to DiLeo. She said residents were in dire need of even the most basic necessities. Most mattresses, clothing, shoes and other possessions were covered in mud and either contaminated or destroyed. Conditions also became unsanitary, with infectious disease beginning to claim lives. Team members had to wear facemasks for protection.

“We saw families who are the poorest of the poor, who lost what little they had, laboring and expressing their faith and hope in God to provide for the future,” said Ron Drewry of New Covenant church. “Even in the midst of disaster many of the adults and children came to help clean out the COPA schools and clinics before they worked on their own homes. They hugged and comforted team members as we shared prayers and tears with them.”

With a pressure washer, small generator and various tools donated by their churches, team memmbers began a process of demolition and disposal of virtually all cabinetry, furniture, bedding, appliances and many personal items, which team members said was traumatic for residents.

Emotions were also high among team members. John Sandlin, a member of Striplin Terrace United Methodist Church in Columbus, Ga., said he was touched by the devastation he witnessed. Recalling an older woman standing outside her home in Bombita, he said she “had few words” when he asked her about her house.

“She just did the finger across her neck, meaning ‘all gone,’ ” he said. “When she showed me her home, with the bedding half sunken in a thick layer of mud, I had no words. All I could do was to hug her and cry with her.”

While Lane assessed damage and traveled by bus to Santo Domingo to round up furniture, bedding, office equipment and replacement appliances, team members began blasting away muck and mold, cleaning and sanitizing all salvageable supplies and equipment. Village residents pitched in to mop and scrub the floors.

Electricians Ken Fitchew, from the United Kingdom, and Ron Drewry, a member of New Covenant church, examined and replaced all outlets, switches and connections, installed new water heaters and appliances, and checked and corrected inverters where they could.

Debris, including mattresses and books caked with mud, litter the yard of the Community Partners Development Program school in Bombita, Dominican Republic. Photo by John Sandlin. Photo #07-0715.

Relief agencies, including OXFAM and the Spanish Red Cross, also arrived to help remove mud from the villages and school grounds — mud that was already drying into a hard, bricklike consistency.

Worth the challenge

Team members say they would gladly accept another mission opportunity.

“Going changes you … for the better,” Sandlin said. “It makes you truly see your blessings. I have worked with scouts for over 25 years, and I feel we need to have every youth we can muster to have the experience. Scouting builds better adults, and missions builds better people.”

Keith agrees and says the work she has done in the Dominican Republic on this trip and many times before, as well as in Mexico, Brazil and Guatemala, has made her appreciate all she has. 

“It has energized me to work with missions at home,” she said. “It has opened my pocketbook, and it has opened my heart and enriched my prayer life.”

Al Letch from New Covenant says he continues to pray for the people he met. “I came away with an even deeper sense of caring for the people,” he said. “Somehow, even though they are facing horrific and deadly conditions, they manage to smile and reach out to touch we who had come to help. God bless all of their souls. We worry about them and pray for them daily.”

Lane says his life “has never been the same.”


This article relates to Missions and Disaster Response.

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