Turning to God in the middle of a disaster


Lit only by candlelight, seven adults, five children, some elderly dogs, a cat and a parrot that couldn’t speak huddled on the second floor of a home in Brazil. The bottom floor was flooded and the water was rising.

One of the adults was Scott Gilpin, director of global development and fundraising resources at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. 

“We’re just talking to each other about who are we and where did we come from and why are we in this place together?” he recalled.

“It was that kind of sharing in the dark. Waiting and wondering if this house was going to hold together.”

Gilpin had been in Brazil on church business, leading a three-day conference on organizational development and fundraising for approximately 30 school, seminary, college and university leaders from Methodist educational institutions in South America. He got caught in the flood March 10 in Sao Benardo do Campo while being driven from a meeting back to his hotel.

At least 11 people died because of the flooding and resulting landslides, according to news reports. Gilpin was almost the 12th.  

“Our driver entered a flooded street that turned out to be deceptively deep,” he told United Methodist News Service. “Immediately, the car died, began to float and then filled with water. We all finally made it out of the car and waded to higher ground.”  
 
The three made their way to a line of businesses and a home, hoping to find cover, but the street in front of them became a raging river. One of Gilpin’s companions managed to get to higher ground and the other was swept away by the river but later made it to safety. Gilpin was alone and trapped as the river continued to rise.

“Not far away, I watched a family of five exit a sinking car and move toward a home in the line of buildings about 50 yards from where I was standing,” Gilpin said. “The owner of the home was calling for them to come to him for safety. They all made it into his house as their car was swept downstream.”   

After trying other ways to escape, Gilpin headed toward the house where the family had found sanctuary. Victor Pastel, owner of the house, lowered a ladder and the United Methodist executive climbed to safety. The water was up to Gilpin’s neck when he escaped it. 

The adults in the home tried to bail water out of the first floor with buckets, but it was futile. So they moved all the kids and pets to the top floor and hoped the water wouldn’t reach them.
Juliana Melito sits with her child at dawn after seeking refuge from flooding in a Brazil home on March 10. Photo courtesy of Scott Gilpin.
Juliana Melito sits with her child at dawn after seeking refuge from flooding in a Brazil home on March 10. Photo courtesy of Scott Gilpin.
Then came the overnight vigil. By morning, the water started to withdraw and everybody was safe. Gilpin was able to go to the airport and return to Texas.

In the conversation overnight, Gilpin learned that another adult who took refuge in the house had once been a drug addict but had been clean for 14 years. He and his wife were Christians.

Pastel, their rescuer, spoke of his love of drumming and revealed that he was a Methodist but did not feel particularly close to God anymore.

“My hope as we were sitting there discussing what was important to us, was that maybe there would be a renewal for Victor, who was obviously a fine man,” Gilpin recalled. “Perhaps our interaction would reawaken all of that. … I don’t know if he feels this way or not.”
Cleanup begins in Sao Benardo do Campo, Brazil, after floods and landslides killed at least 11 people March 10-11. Photo by Scott Gilpin.
Cleanup begins in Sao Benardo do Campo, Brazil, after floods and landslides killed at least 11 people March 10-11. Photo by Scott Gilpin.
Gilpin describes himself as “tempered” from his life experiences. His near drowning in Brazil was not his worst brush with mortality by far. It isn’t even his best story about almost drowning.

That happened in 1989. Gilpin was single-handing a racing sailboat in rough weather on a lake near Shreveport, Louisiana, when a large wave caused his ejection from the vessel and his life vest to be ripped away. 

“I fought my way up from under the sail and I was left treading water in the middle of a large lake in the middle of wintertime,” Gilpin said. “So I had 30 minutes before hypothermia and exhaustion finished me.

“I told God, ‘If you’re there, like I’ve been taught, then I’m coming, because I’m exhausted, there’s nothing else I can do.”

His next memory after passing out was that he was lying on a beach. Someone on shore had seen the accident and called the lake patrol.

Gilpin’s most dangerous adventure happened in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013.

He was in Kenya to meet with presidents of African Methodist colleges and universities about a project to provide e-readers to seminarians. One day, he headed to Westgate Mall in Nairobi to run an errand and meet a colleague for lunch. 

The driver couldn’t get close to the mall because of traffic. Gilpin continued on foot and saw the beginning of an attack by four shooters from the extremist Islamic group al-Shabaab.

During the attack, Gilpin led six people to safety at the nearby Jain Oshwal Community Center. By the time the standoff ended, there were 71 dead and 200 wounded.

“As a Methodist minister’s kid growing up in a parsonage, my parents told me that if you ever win a soul to Christ, it changes your life and you’ll want to do it again and again,” he said. “It transforms not only their life but your life as well. I never understood that as a kid.

“Then when I had the opportunity to save six lives in Nairobi, and we prayed together at the end of our journey to safety, I understood exactly what they meant. The value of every single life. And if you ever have the chance to save a life, like winning a soul to Christ, you want to do it again and again and again.”

Gilpin is wondering if Pastel might feel the same way. “He saved this young family and then saved me,” he said. “My hope is it’s an awakening in him, this desire to continue to serve others like he’s so capable of doing.”

Patterson is a United Methodist News Service reporter in Nashville, Tennessee. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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