Disciple: The First Line of Help
How churches rallied together after a devastating tornado struck Greensboro
By Summerlee Walter
Early in the evening on April 15, an F2 tornado reaching top speeds of 135 mph hit some of Greensboro’s poorest neighborhoods. The storm knocked out power to 85,000 households, destroyed three elementary schools and approximately 100 houses, and killed one resident whose car was hit by a falling tree. While recovery from a major natural disaster—especially an unexpected one—is always a long-term project, the difficulty increases when the affected neighborhoods struggled even before the storm hit.
“Around the end of the month, a lot of the folks we met after the tornado, as bills come due, are requesting help,” the Rev. Audra Abt, vicar at Holy Spirit, Greensboro, explained during the last week of July. Because the storms caused disruptions to people’s work schedules and created unexpected expenses like home and car repairs, hotel stays and transportation, many economically fragile members of the Greensboro community have yet to return to the level of stability they had before the tornado hit.
Fortunately, the churches located nearest to the neighborhoods devastated by the storm—Holy Spirit, Church of the Redeemer and Puerta Abierta (the Open Door) house church—were able to pool resources to aid in the recovery effort. Churches, both within the Greensboro convocation and across the Diocese of North Carolina, reached out to contribute funds, supplies and resources to the recovery effort. In addition to helping people with immediate needs like food and transportation, donations allowed Holy Spirit to help a local domestic abuse shelter cover the repairs insurance wouldn’t after a tree fell on the house. The Diocese was so generous, in fact, Abt was able to save some of the donations to assist people with long-term recovery, like filling some of those end-of-the-month requests.
“The support from the convocation and the diocese gave me a sense of why we’re a diocese,” Abt said. “People were so generous.” Churches called and texted to ask if specific contributions—like a donation to the rector’s discretionary fund—would be helpful, an approach Abt appreciated because it took some of the pressure off her to decide what she should request.
One such call came from Maureen Flak, the parish nurse at Holy Trinity, Greensboro, who has experience with disaster response. When Abt told her Holy Spirit would like to host a community meal for those affected by the storm, Flak asked only for an estimated headcount, and then the people of Holy Trinity organized the meal and brought it to Holy Spirit.
All told, 13 churches donated to Abt’s discretionary fund, and others donated via the discretionary fund of the Rev. Dr. Alicia Alexis, rector at Redeemer. (Alexis is on sabbatical and was unavailable for an interview.)
Part of the work in the convocation was coordinated through a gathering arranged by the Rev. Canon Earnest Graham. Other relief efforts started in congregations, like Holy Spirit organizing groups of parishioners to partner with grassroots groups and canvas the church’s neighborhood assessing damage, or Holy Trinity running a drive that collected 200 bags of food for a local food pantry.
The Rev. Sarah Carver, assistant to the rector at Holy Trinity, reported that parishioners also self-organized or volunteered on their own.
“The community did a good job of pulling together,” she said. Abt concurred.
“It was so clear the first line of help was immediate neighbors,” she said. “The second line of help was immediate neighbors. Lots of outside help came in, but people rallied around each other.”
While the Greensboro convocation did an excellent job of responding to the April 15 tornado, the aftermath of a natural disaster always offers the chance to reflect on how to better prepare for the next disaster. Here’s what we learned.
Create a disaster preparedness plan. Extensive planning resources are available through the diocesan website.
Update your church’s phone tree or other contact list, and schedule a practice run. After the tornado hit, Abt’s first priority was locating Holy Spirit parishioners and determining if everyone was safe. That task proved challenging with a phone tree that hadn’t been updated in 10 years.
“That was maybe the scariest two days of my life as a pastor. I could not get in touch with people.” A long-time member of Holy Spirit has since updated the phone tree, and the church ran a practice scenario.
Get to know your neighbors. In the aftermath of the Greensboro tornado, there was no immediate coordinated effort to canvas the neighborhood to assess the damage, so community grassroots groups called for volunteers. Because parishioners at Holy Spirit had prior experience going door-to-door, they were comfortable going into the neighborhood and talking to people, offering prayers and comfort.
If you have power and running water, use your church building to offer hospitality and a respite. After the tornado, Holy Spirit put out the word people displaced from their homes could stay in the church if they needed to. No one took them up on the offer, but several people expressed just knowing the church was an option relieved enough worry they were able to think more clearly and make alternate plans. If providing overnight shelter isn’t an option, offering a place to rest, a meal or a place to charge cell phones so people can check in with family are all valuable services to offer.
If you are not on-site, concrete offers of help are the way to go. Post-tornado, “I had to live on my phone, and I couldn’t handle vague offers of help because I was in information overload,” Abt explained. “The people who just very simply offered to buy meals, take up a collection for my discretionary fund or donate bottles of water so I could say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to specific offers were really helpful.”
Remember displaced people might not have a place to store “stuff.” While during a disaster people on the ground might make requests for specific items, like bottled water or cleaning supplies, needs change quickly during the first days of an emergency. If you’re not able to respond to a specific request within a day, donating funds, prepaid cards or gift cards to local retailers, grocery stores and gas stations is a high-impact gift. If you’re able to be in contact with someone on the ground, ask what the community needs.
Summerlee Walter is the communications coordinator for the Diocese of North Carolina.