New Jersey United Methodists tackling the long-term after Sandy

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Until pipes burst, causing the dining room and kitchen ceilings to collapse, the Rev. Eugene Chamberlin thought he could stop the churning waters of Hurricane Sandy from causing major damage to the parsonage of First United Methodist Church in Belmar, N.J.

The Belmar parsonage was one of seven deemed uninhabitable by the denomination’s Greater New Jersey Annual (regional) Conference  after the storm struck the state in late October. More than 80 churches experienced some form of damage from Sandy, ranging from minor repairs to major structural work.

“We have quite a bit of work ahead of us,” said Bishop John Schol about the long-term impact of one of the most destructive storms in New Jersey’s history .

“Members were dispersed and sent to shelters across the state. Many are having to find rental housing. We’re trying to hold congregations together,” he said.

In early December, Schol estimated the relief phase after Sandy — meeting the immediate human needs of shelter, food, and clothing for people in storm-affected communities — would last 100 more days.

“There’s been an incredible effort to get out into the community for relief efforts and clean out homes,” he added.

The Greater New Jersey Conference is working closely with the United Methodist Committee on Relief  and other relief agency partners on a long-term strategy for rebuilding homes, lives and communities impacted by Hurricane Sandy that focuses on four “Rs”: relief, repair, rebuild, and renew.

Trying to ride it out

Belmar was under a mandatory evacuation order as Sandy approached, but Chamberlin opted to remain in the parsonage with his 16-year-old daughter, Olivia, to take care of their pets. His wife and co-pastor, Ellen Chamberlin, took their two younger children to a relative’s home in a nearby town.

As the storm picked up speed Oct. 29, the power went down around 8:30p.m. Periodic gusts of wind swirled around the home. “I would hear big gusts of wind and then nothing,” he said. “Then the howling kept coming and coming and coming… The sounds were creepy.”

Chamberlin planned to take his dog for a walk, but discovered that water had reached the front stoop of the house. As neighbors’ cars filled with ocean water coming from blocks away, car alarms randomly started honking nonstop. “I thought to myself, ‘that’s not good’,” he recalled.

He assumed the worst was over after the basement flooded, ruining the boiler and electrical panel. By the next morning, the storm water in the street had not yet flooded the first floor of the house. When the radiators began spraying out water, Chamberlin and his daughter were able to fashion a system to drain the water onto the porch or into buckets.

But, once the pipes burst, Chamberlin knew he had no choice but to vacate the parsonage. “We threw clothes in garbage bags and threw them on a neighbor’s porch,” he said.

A section of their white picket fence served as a makeshift raft to evacuate two cats, a dog, turtle and fish from the parsonage. Chamberlin and his daughter waded for blocks until they reached a safe spot. “We went through the water, which by then was a rainbow of colors from the oil and water,” he said. “We just kept on going.”

In Bay Head, the Rev. Scott Bostwick and his family also are displaced from the parsonage of St. Paul United Methodist Church, which suffered extensive damage.

But the church building itself has remained dry and open to the community. “We’re calling ourselves the ‘Bay Head Bistro,” said Bostwick with a chuckle.

St. Paul continues to operate as an emergency relief center seven days a week from 7am to 7pm. The church offers Bay Head residents a warm place to charge their electronic devices, a hot meal, and space to be “in community” with other residents.

Bostwick said church volunteers once considered closing the church, but soon realized that it had become a place for storm-affected residents to find comfort. “This was a place to gather… and find healing,” he explained.

Assess and repair

The conference’s “repair” phase focuses on assessing storm damage and repairing homes, parsonages and churches. UMCOR and mission relief teams from across the U.S. are assisting and some 150 individuals from the Greater New Jersey Conference have been trained in emergency response.

To date, more than 15 United Methodist Early Response Teams from New Jersey and more than 18 teams from other states have assessed and cleaned New Jersey homes and churches, according to conference officials. The teams also have distributed thousands of clean up buckets, water, school kits and health kits.

A multi-church network is distributing seven tractor- trailer loads of disaster relief kits, clothing, non-perishable food, pet food, space heaters, flashlights, batteries, linens and other items. Church-related feeding programs collectively serve some 400 meals daily, including those delivered to local volunteer workers.

The conference recently hired a director, project manager and administrative assistant. Case managers, volunteer coordinators and construction managers are expected to be hired at a later date.

The “rebuild” phase is a community-building effort that seeks to establish a “new normal” that can be adjusted for the long-term.

In Atlantic City, Hamilton Memorial United Methodist Church  — where the parsonage also was damaged — is creating “a new normal” for Sunday worship services. The Rev. Jevon A. Caldwell-Gross, Hamilton’s senior pastor, invited area congregations that could not worship in their own churches to worship at Hamilton.

“We opened our church up for Pentecostal, Baptist and United Methodist congregations to worship together – not in separate services,” said Caldwell-Gross. Sunday schools and choirs joined together and each pastor alternated preaching each Sunday, he said.

“It was ‘radical hospitality’… We opened ourselves up for God to move in a mighty way,” he explained. “We’re a small congregation, but we are inspiring other congregations to do something radical.”

Caldwell-Gross sits on a newly-formed citywide board that helps to set priorities and direct relief aid to Atlantic City communities most impacted by the storm. He said the board also will help city residents navigate the system to receive relief assistance and identify contractors for construction projects.

The “renew” phase concentrates on the emotional and spiritual toll that the storm has taken on people’s lives and plans are being made to provide counseling and other support.

“Some ask: ‘Why does God allow a storm like this to happen?’” Schol pointed out. “It’s a significant challenge.”

Funding needed

The bishop said about $20 million needs to be raised across the United Methodist connection to effectively respond to the relief and recovery needs in New Jersey. The conference set up a GNJ Sandy Relief Fund to raise money from the 600 United Methodist congregations and others in New Jersey. The denomination also is asking fordonations to UMCOR for the overall response.

The conference fund will help repair homes of the elderly and low-income families as well as church buildings and parsonages. As of early December, that fund had raised $400,000.

FEMA does not provide assistance for church buildings. “Most churches did not have flood insurance because it was cost prohibitive,” Schol explained. “A storm like this in New Jersey has not been known ever before.”

The Chamberlins currently are living in a vacant parsonage in Avalon, and their children are attending their local schools. The Belmar church sanctuary received extensive damage, so the congregation is worshipping at a fire station. But the family is gradually settling in and they hope to be back in the parsonage by Easter.

“You never know what folks go through until you’ve gone through it yourself. We can relate,” Chamberlin said. “Now, we get it like (others who experienced) Hurricanes Katrina and Andrew. For us, we see God’s power and anything can happen… so He can be glorified.”

* Bryant Gyan is a writer based in the New York City metropolitan area and is a member of Morrow Memorial United Methodist Church in Maplewood, NJ.

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