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Deacon Austin Boyd uses a forklift-equipped tractor to help unload the disaster relief trailer at the Jenks Avenue Church of Christ in Panama City, Fla.
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Photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

COVID-19 challenges Christian relief ministries’ response to spring tornadoes

Members of Churches of Christ adapt practices to serve storm victims during the coronavirus pandemic.

After an EF3 tornado slammed into Jonesboro, Ark., on March 28, the Nettleton Church of Christ could have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse not to help.

Instead, the 100-member congregation immediately mobilized while taking precautions designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“Because the recent disaster happened in the midst of the nation’s ‘present distress,’ it has given us an opportunity to reach out to more people,” said Brock Kendall, who preaches for the Arkansas church.

Three hundred miles south of Jonesboro, the Jackson Street Church of Christ in Monroe, La., also didn’t hesitate to rally volunteers after twisters swept through the South on April 12.

“COVID-19 has added a measure of difficulty to the process, but we’re doing our best to embody God’s kingdom in our community,” said Travis Bookout, preaching minister for the 300-member Louisiana congregation.

One Jackson Street family heard from Jason Stewart, a member of the Parkview Church of Christ in Monroe, that tornado victims were going hungry.

So Steven and Jana Fitzhugh and their four children, ages 12 to 22, went to Sam’s Club and bought enough sandwich meat, bread and fruit to fill 140 lunch sacks.


Related: Serving amid COVID-19, husband and wife try to balance safety and compassion


The experience helped smack the family out of its funk over having to isolate at home.

“Here were people who had lost everything in a tornado and didn’t even have food for the day,” Jana Fitzhugh said. “It knocked us back into our reality.”

Mike Lewis, executive director of Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort Inc. in Nashville, Tenn., gives a tour of the ministry's 87,000-square-foot warehouse.

Mike Lewis, executive director of Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort Inc. in Nashville, Tenn., gives a tour of the ministry’s 87,000-square-foot warehouse.

A slower pace

Normally, Churches of Christ are at the forefront of disaster relief.

The virus outbreak is slowing — but not entirely stalling — the typical response to spring storms, national ministry leaders told The Christian Chronicle.

Take Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort, which dispatches tractor-trailer rigs full of food boxes and emergency supplies to hard-hit areas across the U.S.

“Well, we can’t have 230 people in our warehouse now because of social distancing. The next thing is, our volunteers are primarily in the high-risk age group.”

The Nashville, Tenn.-based organization is accustomed to using a phone tree to notify about 1,000 area Christians — many of them older and retired — of its need for volunteers.

“And we’ll have 230 people show up at the same time to pack our boxes, which we can normally do in an hour and a half or an hour and 45 minutes max,” said Mike Lewis, the ministry’s executive director. 

“Well, we can’t have 230 people in our warehouse now because of social distancing,” he added. “The next thing is, our volunteers are primarily in the high-risk age group.”

As a result, Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort is urging Nashville-area congregations to recruit groups of 10 young adults to work three- to four-hour shifts.

“We will give them masks and gloves to wear while they’re here, and we will distance them apart and so forth,” Lewis said.

Even then, a process that took just a few hours before the pandemic could stretch to two or three days, he said.

That means that relief trucks to places such as Jonesboro, Monroe and Ooltewah, Tenn. — struck by the April 12 tornadoes — can take longer to arrive.

“We are in desperate need of volunteers to cut and drag trees/limbs as well as tarp roofs.’

Another ministry, Ohio-based Churches of Christ Disaster Response Team, specializes in organizing volunteers to feed victims, clean up debris and distribute supplies.

Often, those volunteers travel long distances in church vans and sleep in close quarters such as fellowship hall floors.

COVID-19 “affects us in a lot of different ways,” said Laura Cremeans, who directs the Disaster Response Team with her husband, Mark. “We’re not able to provide housing for our volunteers. We’re not able to interact with the families we’re working with.”

The Disaster Response Team sent out an “urgent” appeal this week for volunteers with recreational vehicles to join its work with the Ooltewah Church of Christ, about 20 miles east of Chattanooga.

“We are in desperate need of volunteers to cut and drag trees/limbs as well as tarp roofs,” the ministry’s email said. “Unfortunately, due to COVID19 we can’t house and feed volunteers but we do have space for RVs with generators.”

Serving at a distance

Mike Baumgartner, president and CEO of Disaster Assistance CoC, just wrapped up several weeks of providing meals after the March 3 tornado that killed 19 people in the Cookeville, Tenn., area.

Baumgartner, who worked out of the Double Springs Church of Christ in Cookeville, said he devised a system in which storm victims and people out of work because of the coronavirus could pick up sandwiches and snack cakes at an appropriate distance.

Mike Luke and other volunteers working with Disaster Assistance CoC and the Double Springs Church of Christ deliver food and supplies in a Cookeville, Tenn., neighborhood.

Mike Luke and other volunteers working with Disaster Assistance CoC and the Double Springs Church of Christ deliver food and supplies in a Cookeville, Tenn., neighborhood.

But he said COVID-19 had deterred the more personal aspects of the ministry, such as Don Hudson, Disaster Assistance CoC’s director of outreach, sharing Jesus with storm victims.

“He can’t come at his age because of the virus,” Baumgartner said. “Even if he did, his main purpose is sitting down one on one, face to face, and hugging people. He’s all about setting up Bible studies and seeing people every day and building a close relationship. He wouldn’t be able to do that now.”

God at work

In the northeastern Arkansas community of Jonesboro — where the March 28 twister destroyed or heavily damaged more than 150 homes — the Nettleton church helped about 350 people with food, water, hygiene products, furniture and appliances.

Those items came on two trucks from Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort.

“We have helped a number of people with food and other essentials because of unemployment,” said Kendall, the Arkansas minister. “We see God’s work at providence in all of this.”

“We have helped a number of people with food and other essentials because of unemployment. We see God’s work at providence in all of this.”

About 40 Nettleton church volunteers worked at various times, wearing masks and gloves and “trying” to maintain a proper social distance, he said.

“We had a team at the building handing out the food and attempting to reach out to those who came with the Gospel,” Kendall said.

In Monroe, the Jackson Street church building sustained roof damage and lost power but otherwise escaped the April 12 storm intact. 

Three tornadoes hit about lunchtime that Sunday, damaging or destroying more than 450 area homes, according to the National Weather Service.

“Thankfully, since we are meeting virtually, no one was at the building,” said Bookout, the preacher. “But our neighborhood is struggling.”

Four years ago, the Louisiana congregation gained disaster relief experience when floodwaters deluged the community. 

After the recent twisters, Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort again dispatched tractor-trailer rigs from its headquarters 475 miles away.

But the process was different this time: No handshakes. No hugs. No heart-to-heart talks and prayers.

EDIT: We gave everything out this afternoon! We won't be distributing tomorrow 4/15. We will create a new post if we are…

Posted by Jackson Street Church of Christ on Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Last time, victims came inside the church to receive assistance. This time, cars lined up to accept boxes from volunteers wearing masks and gloves.

“It’s just such an impersonal thing. I just hate that.”

“It’s just such an impersonal thing,” said Jana Fitzhugh, who helped along with her husband and children. “I just hate that.”

However, Fitzhugh prays that — after the time of social distancing has passed — the church might have an opportunity to connect with those helped.

“Anytime there’s a disaster,” she said, “I think it’s a time when we can really show up and let our community know that we care and love them.”

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

Filed under: Arkansas Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort Coronavirus covid COVID-19 disaster relief Louisiana National Partners Tennessee Tennessee tornadoes Top Stories tornadoes

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