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On the Gulf Coast: Recovery and Renewal

By Sheila Cumbest D'90


JACKSON, Miss. - The media attention is beginning to wane and eventually people will forget about those still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina. The scenes along the Gulf Coast are still horrific—houses and businesses leveled; huge piles of debris; FEMA trailers; physically and emotionally exhausted people. An estimated 30,000 people are in Mississippi hotels without places to live. Others along the coast are still living in tents.

But when people ask how things are post-Katrina, I don't talk about these things. I stress how miraculously God is at work. I know that may astound people, but the spirit of God is so present, and the church is being the church as I've never seen in 20 years of ministry.

As director of ministerial services for the annual conference, I've been involved in caring for clergy on the coast. As a south Mississippi native, I was concerned for all persons, including my own family. My husband, Chris, and I went to the coast four days after the storm, which was as soon as we could find enough gasoline and get through. We spent the next four days trying to find pastors and families, checking on church buildings, and connecting with our own family members.

During this first visit, the immediate need was emergency housing. We sent out a plea for trailers or RVs from neighboring conferences. Within two weeks we had housing for 24 pastors and families, most of whom are still living in these temporary quarters.

We paired clergy and spouses from unaffected areas of the state with those on the coast for spiritual, emotional and physical support. We arranged retreats with the help of Lake Junaluska, Duke Divinity School, and others who wanted to help pastors and families find Sabbath.

By the end of 2005, I had been back to the Gulf Coast six times to deliver supplies, visit pastors, and meet teams in churches working with the Spiritual and Emotional Care Teams of the Mississippi Conference.

That last trip in December was almost like my first. I wept as I saw FEMA trailers where stately old homes once stood. Banana trailers still covered the port of Gulfport. Debris still covered the beach as I drove east on Highway 90. The stench from the first few trips was gone, but I was overwhelmed with the devastation.

Lives are being restored. Faith and hope are being restored. You can see it in the faces of those who are getting roofs back in place and walls rebuilt. One of the most amazing things is how the lives of volunteers are being changed. I stayed with teams at Vancleave United Methodist Church. Vancleave is a small town about 15 miles northeast of Biloxi. By the end of November, United Methodist volunteers from 17 states had donated a total of 70,642 hours.

During an evening service, volunteers from Ohio, Georgia, and Tennessee witnessed seeing Christ that day. “We've become like family,” said a volunteer who seemed reluctant to leave the next day. “I'll be back,” said another.

These scenes are being replayed many times over. Churches are being revitalized through the mission of helping others, offering Christ through hands that “muck out” houses and give hugs in the process.

Although many churches have been destroyed, there is an opportunity for a new vision. How can we be faithful to God? How might that look now? New cross-cultural congregations are being considered in new places.

Churches are opening their doors for everyone and anyone. Our logo, “Open hearts, open minds, open doors,” is becoming a reality more and more.

Sheila Cumbest D' 90 and her husband, Chris D'90, have two children, Elizabeth and Jesse. Chris is serving as the Mississippi Conference's Coordinator of Church Recovery for the Gulf Coast.  

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