For homeowners, UMC hurricane blitz ‘like the star over Bethlehem’
By Jessica Brodie
SELLERS, S.C.—For Allen James, the scores of people who descended upon his town armed with hammers, crowbars and chainsaws were “like the star over Bethlehem.”
“It was just a total faith lift, a joy to know that someone thought enough to come and help us,” said James, whose Sellers home was devastated both from October’s Hurricane Matthew and the October 2015 flood.
The tiny town of Sellers, already a poverty-stricken area before the hurricane, was badly impacted after two storm-swamped rivers overflowed and flooded the region. Nearly everyone in the town suffered damage. But after the Jan. 13-14 hurricane blitz organized by the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church, many of those homeowners are on the road to recovery.
“You can see the smiles on everybody’s faces,” James said, his eyes shining with tears as he watched teams of volunteers work on his home and up and down his street. He said the commitment of the volunteers warmed his heart. “It wasn’t ‘we’re going to help’ and we don’t see them anymore. They said they were going to help, and they’re here. They’re doing this and this, and they’re helping next door and down the street, and it gives you a feeling like—wow. It’s just wonderful.”
James’ modest one-story home on Bank Street was one of two-dozen homes helped by United Methodist volunteers that weekend. Roughly 150 United Methodist volunteers from all over South Carolina did everything from mold removal and tearout of drywall and flooring to roof repairs, cabinetry and bathroom rebuilds. At James’ home, crews cut away a massive tree and ripped out his entire bathroom, along with performing other relief and repair work.
“We’ve set some pretty substantial precedents about how we respond to disaster,” said Matt Brodie, conference disaster response coordinator, calling the volunteers the personification of Jesus Christ. “The people of Sellers were sure that no one would come, no one would help and no one would care, but our United Methodist volunteers helped to prove that there are still good people in this world that will love and support those they don’t even know.”
‘Jesus didn’t do it from the pulpit’
The Sellers blitz was the conference disaster response team’s second since the hurricane. The first blitz, in nearby Nichols Dec. 2-3, helped 18 homes through the efforts of 236 volunteers. When Brodie and his team heard that Sellers was just as badly damaged as Nichols, if not more so, they immediately got to work and organized the second blitz.
For James and the other homeowners, the Sellers blitz was the answer to fervent and desperate prayer. Like many of his neighbors in the two-street town, James was forced to remain in his home after the flood because he had nowhere else to go. Since October, he’s had to cook on a campsite burner and use his neighbor’s toilet and shower.
“Everyone’s talking—they’re amazed. I’m amazed!” James said. “I thank God for y’all.”
The Rev. Mike Evans, Greenwood District disaster response coordinator who helped organize the Sellers blitz, said that was the point: giving people hope.
“What else do we have to give to someone in need?” Evans said. “If we can’t give them food and time, what else can we do? It’s all about trying to be like Jesus.”
After all, he said, Jesus didn’t do it from the pulpit.
Sellers Mayor Barbara Hopkins said volunteers brought so much hope to her community.
“No one knew this town existed; it was forgotten,” said Hopkins, whose own home burned down because the flood knocked over a power line. But thanks to the work of the UMC, she sees some very happy people in Sellers.
“This will make it a safe place to live, a haven for the families,” Hopkins said. “The storm really took a toll on the whole town, but it made us get closer because we realized we need each other in Christ. It wasn’t about you or me but about being about God.”
Like a Salkehatchie house done in two days
Brodie said the Sellers blitz was different from the one in Nichols because it had many repair and rebuild aspects to it.
“When we did Nichols, the folks were not living in the houses at the time, so we were able to do the muckout and tearout and get the homes ready for the next phase, but in Sellers the people had nowhere else to go, so they were still living in homes that were badly damaged and incredibly moldy,” Brodie said.
He said the homes were already in disrepair, and the flooding made everything far worse, from flooring and structural issues to roofing issues. Some of the homes had been shifted off their foundations.
“We couldn’t just tear everything out of every house because the folks had to live there still, so when we left the blitz we had to make sure they were still able to live in the home if they needed to,” Brodie said.
Doing something like that in a two-day timespan is challenging, he said.
“You never really know quite what you’ll find when you rip out a floor like that,” Brodie said. “For those familiar with Salkehatchie Summer Service, it was very much like a Salkehatchie house that you did in two days.”
But through the grace and power of God, he said, the volunteers were able to do that and more.
‘What a difference you have made’
Tammy Erwin, a United Methodist volunteer who lives in Marion, helped do initial assessments on the homes in Sellers. Erwin and her husband have friends in Nichols, and when she learned helicopters were plucking hurricane victims from their homes soaking wet with just the clothes on their back, she immediately started a clothing collection, storing donated items in a Mullins warehouse that her family owns. That clothing collection expanded into donations of food, toiletries, furniture and cleaning supplies, prompting her to establish a nonprofit organization, Matthew’s Miracle, to help her neighbors in need.
Then one day she found out that the tiny community of Sellers, which she would drive right past every day taking her son to school, had been just as hard-hit as Nichols yet wasn’t getting much attention or assistance.
“It broke my heart—I was blindly focused on Nichols, and yet I pass by here every day and didn’t realize people are suffering,” Erwin said.
The next morning she was in Sellers with supplies. One of the first people she befriended was James, who introduced her to others in his neighborhood.
She quickly teamed up with the disaster response team to help with the blitz.
A week after the effort, Erwin is still seeing smiles and hearing stories of gratitude in Sellers.
“I cannot express to you what a difference you have made in this community,” Erwin said.
The Rev. George Olive, Marion District disaster response coordinator, said the blitz was about making a difference and, most importantly, about reminding the people of Sellers that there is a God who cares.
“That’s who you are here in this place this weekend,” Olive told the crowd of volunteers as they prepared to work on Day Two of the blitz. “You’re here to do work, that’s why you came, but that’s your Number Two priority. Your Number One priority is to be the presence of God in this place.”
For Sellers native Vivian Durant, who lives alone in her childhood home a few doors down from James, the repairs are just that: a humbling reminder of God’s love. Teams ripped out flooring and molded drywall, along with her kitchen and bathroom appliances, in preparation for the next phase of work. She said she is beyond grateful and could never have been able to do any of this work without the help of the UMC volunteers.
“The heart just fills with joy,” she said, wiping away tears as she surveyed the team’s work over the past two days. “I’m so thankful and blessed.”
Brodie said he hopes the work does not stop there. He is hopeful that churches will form volunteer teams to return to Sellers and pick up where they left off, transforming one community through love and hard work. Talks are also in the works about a possible conference-organized return blitz.
He said anyone interested in helping with ongoing rebuild efforts around the state from the 2015 flood or the 2016 hurricane should contact Ward Smith, South Carolina conference director of recovery ministries, at 803-603-1790 or firstname.lastname@example.org.