Underwater: Restoring Buildings and Lives in North Carolina

LCMS congregations are coming together to help the owner of a day-care center that was flooded by Hurricane Matthew.

Hear Bernice Cromartie tell the story of how the Lutherans helped her and her beloved day-care center, Nanny’s Korner Care Center.

God works in mysterious ways to create new beginnings. Joel Mathews, a member of Messiah Lutheran Church in Tampa, Fla.

Last October, the small town of Lumberton, N.C., was hit hard as Hurricane Matthew lashed the Caribbean and moved up the U.S. coastline. First the wind came, and then floodwaters rushed in, leaving more than 20 people dead in North Carolina alone.

Along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in the south part of Lumberton, floodwaters lapped the Nanny’s Korner Care Center sign and filled the small day-care center up to its 4-foot high Noah’s Ark wallpaper border.

“Oh my God, oh my God,” said Bernice Cromartie, a gentle woman with a fiercely warm smile and a penchant for hugs instead of handshakes, when she first saw her flooded day care and the surrounding area. When she was able to enter the building a few days later, she saw that everything was destroyed.

“I was devastated, I was hurt; I felt as though I had no hope, I didn’t know what direction to take, because I knew in the circumstances that the odds were against me,” she recalled.

Nanny’s Korner Care Center in January 2017 — three months after the day care was damaged by Hurricane Matthew.

I was devastated, I was hurt; I felt as though I had no hope. Bernice Cromartie, day-care center owner

Hope Amid Tragedy

Cromartie always wanted the best for the children in her day care, so she neglected herself and sank half of her earnings into the business. “Some of the only things [the children] received were from me,” she said. At the day care, they had Thanksgiving dinners for parents and Christmas gifts for the children.

It was the third tragedy for Cromartie in several years. First, she found her husband dead from a heart attack in their bedroom, a Bible next to him. Later, her finances toppled into bankruptcy as she clung to the business for the children she dearly loved. Now, her business — and everything she financially poured into it — had been destroyed in the flood.

“I had no outlet other than prayer; that was [the] only thing that kept me [sane] — it was the Lord and the Word,” she said.

Floodwaters in the day care came up to the Noah’s Ark wallpaper border.

“I asked the Lord, where do I go now?”

Shortly after the storm, Joel and Kathy Mathews had traveled to Lumberton from Florida to distribute flood buckets and help with cleanup. Each bucket contained devotionals and cleaning items for flood victims, prepared by congregations with help from LCMS Disaster Response.

One of the buckets went to a nearby school and landed in Cromartie’s hands. She was struggling — unable to secure either assistance from FEMA or recovery loans from the Small Business Administration.

Cromartie dug into the bucket, parsed out the cleaning supplies and found the devotional. She read it, and “it was like a soft, still voice,” she said. “The Lord said, ‘Call them,’” so she picked up the phone on Nov. 2 and called.

The number was for the LCMS International Center in St. Louis. Diane Grimm in the Church Information Center answered and listened to her story. Grimm was “all yeas, no nays,” according to Cromartie. She was then connected to Deaconess Sally Hiller at the LCMS Southeastern District, who connected her to disaster responders in the area.

A notice on the door indicates that the building is not fit for habitation.

Cromartie reached Kathy Mathews on her cell phone as they drove to nearby Fayetteville. The Mathewses answered Cromartie’s call and turned the car around to meet her. They asked church member and contractor Victor Tucker and the Rev. Dean Herberts, pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Norlina, N.C., to join them at the center.

Tucker later sized up the mold-infested day care and felt the Lord’s call to help the saddened widow. “When He touches your heart with something, there’s nothing you can do but follow,” Tucker said. He now uses his skills as a general contractor to oversee the repair of the building.

Volunteers from area LCMS congregations — Hope Lutheran Church, Wake Forest, N.C.; St. Paul’s, Norlina, N.C.; and St. John’s Lutheran Church, Conover, N.C. — answered the call for help at the day care, just one of over 100,000 structures in North Carolina affected by the flood, according to the Rev. Eric Hollar, associate pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church, Claremont, N.C., and the Southeastern District’s on-site coordinator for Hurricane Matthew relief.

The Rev. Wayne Puls, senior pastor at Hope Lutheran Church, Wake Forest, N.C., helps church member Harold Haun with an exterior wall repair.

Jerry Garlington from Hope Lutheran Church in Wake Forest, N.C., navigates through the floor as he makes repairs.

‘The Tool in God’s Hand’

A few months later in January, the Rev. Wayne Puls, senior pastor of Hope, was at a volunteer workday at the center when he cut a board just a little too long to affix it properly to the day care’s exterior. He called for help from Harold Haun, the church member and foreman on-site, who was working in a crawlspace. Haun sauntered out and helped the pastor recut the wood. The two were part of a group of volunteers from the congregation that were gutting the center.

“It’s a chance,” Puls said, “to — as the old cliché says — be the tool in God’s hand, and let Him not just help fix a building, but I think it has an impact on her heart and her life, and that’s all to the glory of God, that’s not something we’re doing.”

The mercy work, he said, “comes back to our church tenfold in ways of opening people’s hearts and [helping] them see what God can do through their simple, humble efforts.”

Liz Garlington listens to Bernice Cromartie, owner of Nanny’s Korner Care Center, in January.

Outside the center, the thud, thud, thud of hammers and the high-pitched whirl of a saw permeated the air. Volunteers Jim Kelliher and Gerald Jomp wrestled with a fallen chain-link fence. Jerry Garlington hoisted himself up from under the floorboards, hammer in one hand, crowbar in the other, and a breathing mask on his face.

“That’s not a very pretty picture,” Garlington joked to a reporter standing next to him.

Cromartie visited with and hugged the volunteers. “They were doing physical work, but they were helping me to heal. They would always pray with me, they really exemplified to … me that you’re going to make it,” she said.

The Lutherans “were sent to me … for when this storm hit.” Bernice Cromartie

“I felt like giving up at one point … but [Kathy] said ‘you’re a strong, strong lady … your faith is great,’ and that’s the only thing I had.” The Lutherans “were sent to me … for when this storm hit,” she said. “He really showed how He could take care of me.”

In February, LCMS Disaster Response gave two grants to assist in this work: $8,000 to continue renovations of Nanny’s Korner Care Center and $10,000 for a disaster-response trailer that can be used for years to come.

Once repairs are complete, Herberts said they hope to provide ongoing spiritual care for the community.

“I believe God is calling us to go deeper here [in Lumberton],” Hollar said. As he coordinates volunteer teams, the parish pastor is exploring a mission start in the town. It’s not easy work, but he knows it’s a place that needs Christ.

“The Christian witnessing provided in Word and action for the community who desperately needed to know God was with them … and still is shining there on the corner of Nanny’s Korner Care Center,” Joel Mathews said.

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Pray with Us

Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to You when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I. We cry out with the psalmist to You, O Lord, for You are our only refuge and strength in times of trouble. Bless those who continue to recover from disasters that have afflicted our land. We thank You for the volunteers and church workers who have worked through these situations to show Your mercy and to proclaim Your Word of promise. Bless the work begun in Lumberton, that it may bear abundant fruit. When we face disasters or adversity, turn our hearts to trust in Your love and Your promises in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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