Sunday afternoon I was sitting in a small duplex hidden behind a church, it is quiet and clean and peaceful. My in-laws are staying there for free for an undetermined length of time, having lost their condo in the Great Flood of Nashville. It really was quite a flood; their place was in the 1000 year flood area while our neighborhood received enough rainfall in two days to be classified a 500 year flood. Amazing.
As I sat and talked with my mother-in-law, I couldn’t help think about the article David Foster wrote about the flood. He had some good points, especially about the impact of despair in this situation. The line that stuck with me, however, was that he said the organized churches had responded poorly and “really suck at getting much done.” He clarified that if you consider the church as its people then this isn’t true, but the organizations had not done well and some were just out looking for credit.
I have to confess this has bugged me since I read it. It would have bugged me if I read it and hadn’t been in the midst of the mess, but it bugged me even more being in the midst. First, we simply have to get past this distinction all the time of the “organized church” versus the “people”. The church is the people, the people are the church. There are some people who are humble and true in their walk with God and there are charlatans. There should be no surprise that the same is true of “churches”…since, you know, the church is made up of people.
That said, I wanted to share a little of my experience these last few weeks. The first day that we went down to work on the condo, just two days after the flood, the devastation was really pretty amazing. The people who lived in the condos were in a state of shock. As we pulled down drywall and loaded up dishes, we would make trips up to the street to deposit the debris. Each time we would pass other people doing the same. I had my truck with coolers in the back opened up and filled with Gatorade and water and pop. We offered it to anyone. That day, in 90 degree weather, the ice never melted and when I left three hours later both coolers were still full, even though people were constantly grabbing drinks. God blesses us even in small things.
In the midst of this activity we saw several acts of mercy. A truck drove through with men who would get out and ask if we needed sunscreen, spraying us down if we needed. A woman came through with a rolling cooler and water. Dominos pizza donated pizzas and kept them warm in one of the usable clubhouses. Pizza Hut donated 100 personal pan pizzas and had a man drive through the condos handing them out. My mother-in-law told me that one morning some women came through with breakfast and when she asked if there was coffee the ladies told her they didn’t have any, but would be right back. They were back quickly with coffee in hand.
There was a crew from my father-in-laws church that helped with demolition, along with a volunteer from our church. They also provided a storage unit and transported everything there once it was boxed and ready to go. Others took the clothing and washed, including precious quilts that have been restored. Others, including myself, took photographs and dishes and papers and are working through them, cleaning and restoring. My in-laws are staying in their little peaceful duplex because of another church that provided it for free as long as they need.
Yes, those are mostly the actions of “people”. So what about the “Church?” Well, when my parents went to church yesterday the 1st and 2nd graders had decorated little buildings, like bird houses, for each of the 44 people in their church that had lost a home. The houses will be their mailboxes as they are staying in a variety of places for different lengths of time. Each mailbox already had notes from the children. The organization of the children’s ministry helped organize that.
My in-law’s church, the Bellevue Church of Christ, has sent out construction teams daily and has helped provide storage units and workers throughout these three weeks. When donations of food and water and clothes began piling up at the church, they worked with Bellevue Baptist across the street to make things simpler; the Church of Christ took the food and water and the Baptists took the clothes. It was all given away to those affected by the flood. There is a United Methodist Church that took in people who could no longer be housed by the Red Cross Shelter. Cross Point church has sent volunteers out each weekend, including 600 that were sent to areas that had not had attention yet. On their website they say, “We are going to let people know that Hope and Help aren’t just reserved to families in our own back yard, but to everyone who asks for it.”
I could multiply the story many times over for the churches in the community. Our church, The Village Chapel has worked on a minimum of 20 houses, some we will be with all the way through their final construction. We had 400 volunteers sign up (and although I’m not sure our membership, I would guess we are around 800-900 members, so that’s almost half our church), serving in manual labor, skilled labor, food prep, supply purchasing, delivering, victim hand holding, general planning and administration of communicating the details and assignments.
Yesterday when I was praying at the end of the service, one man came and thanked our administrator. He said that there were so many eager to serve, but the organization and the help of knowing where to serve best has been a huge help. The service has been cathartic.
So, I’m not sure where David Foster was when he said the organized church hasn’t helped, or has just been out for photo ops. That has surely not been my experience. On the receiving end with my in-laws, we have been encouraged by offers ranging from a drink of water toa place to live. They have had congregations take up special offerings for them. They have been blessed by the individuals who acted on the guidance of the organized church. On the serving end, I have not been able to do as much as I’d like, but I have found ways to serve because my church has opened my eyes to needs…I prepared sandwiches for a crew of workers this past week. I have prayed for needs.
In each of these things, the people we have encountered and served with have become community in a different way. There is a depth of emotion when you are gutting a house with strangers in the midst of emotional despair that is so hard to convey. The hundreds of volunteers who just showed up in the first days was staggering, and so encouraging.
However, when in the midst of that despair someone comes in the name of Christ and offers hope, it is immeasurable the impact that has. If we all did so just as individuals, that would be pretty amazing….however when we move out in the name of Christ as part of organized churches, we also offer a place for these people to return to. There are the guys in the truck with sunscreen who blessed me, but I’ll never see again, and then there are the crews from our church who I know I’ll see on Sunday. There is security and hope in knowing that there is a community that acted under the guidance of its leadership and I’ll be able to find them months from now when there is lingering despair.
Yes, the organized church does some goofy things. Sometimes it is out just for photo ops. So are we as people. Sometimes, though, the organized church acts as it is called to, as a body of believers who love their Lord and want to minister to those who are in need. In the midst of that some have come to know Him, and others have been saved from despair and from physical distress. I’d say that’s a pretty good testimony.