Bearing the Love of Christ After Disaster

Lutheran volunteers and organizations share Christ’s love through prayer and service in tornado-torn Selma, Ala.

“The tornado went straight through the heart of Selma from one side all the way to the other side, so we’ve just experienced so much devastation,” said Latanya, a resident of Selma, Ala.

On Thursday, Jan. 12, a tornado ripped through dozens of counties in Alabama and Georgia, leaving nine people dead. Selma was one of the hardest-hit areas. Hundreds of buildings were damaged, though no casualties were reported in the town.

Latanya was at home when the tornado hit. “I just heard this horrible sound like a roaring train … my window started shattering and I heard the wind blowing so ferociously,” she said. Moments later, her husband told her that a tree had fallen on their house.

Shortly after the tornado ran its course, Latanya gave her neighbor a ride to pick up his daughter at a school across town.

Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) President and CEO Rev. Chris Singer, LCC Director of Disaster Response Deaconess Kathy O’Day and Director of LCMS Disaster Response Rev. Dr. Ross Johnson pray with Latanya outside her home in Selma, Ala.

“Selma is not that big. It doesn’t take you an hour to get anywhere here in Selma,” said Latanya. “We left my house at 12:50. We did not get to her school until 2:06 because we had to maneuver around so much debris and devastation. Every street that we tried to go down, it was just [downed] power lines and trees.”

Serving Affected Homeowners

A couple of days after the tornado, the Rev. Dr. Ross Johnson, director of LCMS Disaster Response, along with the Rev. Ed Brashier, district disaster response coordinator for the LCMS Southern District, visited Selma to assess the damage and develop an action plan. They partnered with the Rev. Steve Washington and Trinity Lutheran Church in Selma in the relief efforts.

For four weeks, Trinity hosted a Lutheran Early Response Team (LERT), led by Brashier. More volunteers from northern Illinois, led by Deaconess Kathy O’Day, disaster response director for LCMS Recognized Service Organization (RSO) Lutheran Church Charities, came to work for a week and a half as well. The LERT volunteers provided free chainsaw work and tree removal to residents in Selma.

Latanya was one of the homeowners assisted by the LERT volunteers. She got in touch with the team through contact information listed on a flyer, after several dead-end attempts to seek help elsewhere.

“I called Pastor Ed [Brashier] on Saturday … and now they’re here, just like they said they would [be],” Latanya said. “They were so nice and friendly, and you know it … just warms our heart to receive that because this is an awful time for us here. We’ve never experienced anything like that.”

The LERT volunteers were able to serve 50 homeowners during their first few weeks of work in Selma.

Lutheran Early Response Team (LERT) volunteers leave for their worksites on an early morning in January. Below: LERT volunteer Marty Johnson of St. John Lutheran Church, Wheaton, Ill., assists fellow volunteer Dave Mummah (rear) at a damaged home.

“It’s just amazing that so many people come from so far. We’re doing it because we can … help out our fellow neighbors, even though they’re far away. [We’re] blessed to be able to have the health and the ability … to be here,” said Janet Hill, a member of St. John’s Lutheran Church in East Moline, Ill., who came to volunteer.

Serving people who have just been through a disaster creates opportunities to share the comfort of the Gospel.

“If the homeowner comes out, turn your saw off, take your gear off and let them talk to you. A lot of them just want to tell you their story,” said Dave Schlesselman, a member of St. John Lutheran Church in Wheaton, Ill.

These conversations often lead to a chance for LERT volunteers to bear witness to Jesus, share the Word of God, pray with people in need and show the love of Christ by loving others as He loves us.

“A lot of them ask us why we come so far and do this for nothing. And that’s where we get to witness … . We tell them … through the grace of God, we’ve been blessed. We want to be a blessing to you in return. So, it’s a nice way to give help. People cry. People pray with us; we pray with them. It’s an easy way to do unto your neighbors [as] you would want them to come and help you,” said Schlesselman.

“Go — go get trained,” said Hill. “I think anybody can do it. We all have our talents. … Just give a little bit of your time and come out here, and God gives us the rest.”

‘Bowls of Hope’ for Tornado Victims

In addition to hosting LERT volunteers for cleanup and chainsaw work, Trinity hosted RSO Forged by Fire, a nonprofit disaster-relief organization based in Lacombe, Ala. The Forged by Fire cooks, equipped with mobile kitchen trailers that prepare food for thousands of people, travel to the sites of natural disasters to provide meals for those in need. While in Selma, the team served around 3,200 free meals to victims of the tornado.

Above: Drivers queue for free food cooked by Forged by Fire at Trinity Lutheran Church, Selma. Below: Nick Capace serves meals.

For one round, the Forged by Fire cooks made pasta for 800 people by combining 80 pounds of ground meat, more than 60 pounds of vegetables, 12 pounds of garlic and 60 #10 cans of pasta sauce into an enormous cast-iron pot.

“Then it’s kind of taste and see how it goes, you know?” said the Rev. Paul Ernewein, the leader of Forged by Fire.

The team set up a makeshift drive-thru in Trinity Lutheran Church’s parking lot. Hundreds of cars passed through. After picking up a meal, each driver would stop at the prayer tent, where either the Rev. Dr. McNair Ramsey or the Rev. Tom Noon would take a few moments to pray with the driver and other passengers.

“I always like to think [the food is] our way of giving a little hope. We get to model the love that Christ has given us to our neighbors,” said Ernewein. “It’s not just a bowl of food or a bowl of jambalaya. It’s a bowl of hope.”

By providing for these needs of body and soul in times of suffering, Lutherans, LERT and Forged by Fire proclaim the hope we have in Jesus Christ, who through His own suffering on the cross gave us forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.

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Pray with Us

Lord of all creation, Your Son taught His disciples to repent when disaster strikes. May we all confess our sins and trust in Your mercy in the face of storms and trials. Empower Your church to care and love for those whose lives are disrupted or destroyed by wind, fire or flood. May all that Your church does reflect Your gracious love for all through our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Sarah Reinsel

Staff writer and editor for LCMS Communications.

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