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United Methodists lead with their hearts in Miami disaster relief effort

United Methodists lead with their hearts in Miami disaster relief effort

Disaster Recovery Missions and Outreach

So much was lost in the catastrophe at the Champlain Towers South in Surfside. Friends, family members and loved ones were gone in a moment, along with a sense of security that may well be hard to recover.

That's when people need hope the most, though, and that's what United Methodists are trying to provide their grief-stricken community. They are leading with their hearts. They listen to the stories of those who survived the condo collapse, and they provide what comfort they can to those desperate for updates about those trapped under the rubble.

It won't bring back those who were lost, but soft words, held hands, and supportive hugs tell those grappling with this tragedy that they are not alone.

"The local churches have been so supportive.  They've created a group to communicate needs out immediately and are working hard to locate volunteers to assist in the Family Resource Center," said Trish Warren,  the Disaster Response Coordinator for the Florida Conference.

"(Monday) we had a father come in, and his son, who is a college senior, is one of those unaccounted for.  We were immediately able to locate housing for his family of five, and First Miami UMC offered to donate food to stock the refrigerator so that the family would have one less worry on their minds."

Sometimes, help means taking action like that. Other times, it is offering an open ear to those trying to make sense of what just happened.

"We let them talk," Warren said. "The stories are heartbreaking. It's been extremely difficult for the families. We spoke with a lot of parents whose children were in the collapse. One dad broke down and sobbed as we talked. Others want hugs, and we do that."

Coordinating with 20 other relief agencies and local churches, she helps direct people to places where they can get the help they need.

Trish Warren

"As we hear of a need, we've thought, 'Oh, I know who can help with that.'  So, for example, we have a family member of one of the 11 whose bodies were identified.  He had two needs. First, he needed flights to return home to an island in the unincorporated territory of the U.S., and he also needed to transport his family member's remains home," Warren said. 

Workers at the Family Assistance Center try to get people the help they need.

"We immediately thought of JetBlue, who is a partner agency in this recovery.  We asked the JetBlue representative to come to our table, and we were able to connect him with the person in need.  JetBlue stated they could not transport remains anymore, but their partner agency can, so they were going to try to make that happen for the family."  

That's important work, of course, but those rendering aid – especially those who live nearby – have to process their emotions, too.

St. John's On The Lake UMC is just four miles from the condo site. Pastor Kipp Nelson said he knows of many people waiting for news about loved ones. The wait is agonizing.

Kipp Nelson

"What strikes me the most is the thought of not knowing what happened to a loved one and fearing the worst. On top of the pain in this unknown territory, these families are waiting for national press conferences for updates on any progress that has been made," he said.

"The weight of grief is palpable and unimaginable. Seeing and speaking with some of those affected has brought tears to my eyes and chills down my spine. This is an unforgettable moment for us all. The proximity of the situation weighs heavily on all of us, and I can't help but want to do something to support those who this has impacted."

Rev. Ginger Medley is the Senior Pastor at Fulford UMC in North Miami Beach, about seven miles from the condo site.

She said she would never forget the video of the collapsing building and the images of the families weeping and wailing for their loved ones.

"It all seemed surreal.  I've seen this type of destruction and raw heartbreak on TV, but it has never been down the street from me," Medley said. "I'm also in awe of the outpouring of prayer and support from the entire South Florida community and beyond.  In addition, some friends from back home in West Virginia reached out to me on how they can support the recovery efforts.

Rev. Ginger Medley

"I've gone to the bay to look across and pray.  It's hard to believe that just across the water, the lives of so many have been forever changed by this tragedy."

Floridians are used to dangerous situations such as hurricanes and other violent storms, but the suddenness of this compounded its effect. Warren recalled the destruction left by Hurricane Irma, but people had time to prepare for that.

The tower collapse happened with no warning at 2 a.m.

"I have lived through and pastored through other types of disasters, mainly weather-related, such as hurricanes and tropical storms," Hollywood Hills UMC Senior Pastor Kevin Johnson said.

"In a way, you can anticipate destruction with them.  However, this is the first disaster I have experienced of this kind.  To wake up to such devastation just down the road was not something I was prepared for."

Maybe not, but through prayer and trust in God's guidance, the volunteers are living up to the biblical ideal: Love your neighbor.

"Southeast Florida is in many ways one big community," Johnson said. 

Rev. Kevin Johnson

Much work remains, and it is painstakingly slow as workers carefully sort through the debris while remembering those who can only stand by and wait. United Methodists and volunteers from other denominations will be there to offer support, love, and open hearts.

"The greatest need are prayers.  The families are hurting tremendously, and as we see them walk in for their morning and evening updates they are deeply emotional," Warren said.

"Monday, an older lady came in with a person on each side of her.  As she entered the hotel lobby, she nearly collapsed.  We also have survivors and family members coming in to the Family Assistance Center, and as we ask questions to determine their need, they become very emotional as the reality of this devastating disaster begins to set in."

Giving of one's self when others need help the most is our highest calling.

"The tragedy in Surfside hits us in our most vulnerable place as we question the very stability on which we live, work, and rest. Yet, churches in the Miami area have quickly shown the deepest degree of compassion by opening their hearts, hands, sanctuaries, homes, and cupboards," South East District Superintendent Cynthia Weems said.

"Their willingness to support the community through grief counseling, hosting funerals, providing language translation, the housing of those displaced, among many other things is a tremendous sign of God's outpouring of love through our human vessels."

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Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for


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