Local churches team up to provide tornado relief in Mississippi

Eleven volunteers representing three area churches left on the cold and dark morning of Saturday, Feb. 8, headed for their destination of Meridian, MS, a city where people are still dealing with the aftermath of damage left by tornadoes and flooding from two years ago. The volunteers who participated in this week-long mission trip are members of Sully First Reformed Church, Sully Christian Reformed Church, and Calvary Christian Reformed Church of Pella.

Several weeks before their departure, the group’s planner, Gary Van Genderen, researched disaster relief work sites available through World Renew for Sully First Reformed Church’s annual adult mission trip. World Renew is a Christian organization that addresses community development, poverty, and disaster recovery needs of people in the U.S. and internationally.

Within the area of disaster recovery, World Renew finds many homeowners who have reached out for assistance are either physically unable to do the manual labor themselves, or do not have the means to pay for all the necessary repairs to damage caused by a natural disaster.

The 11 volunteers from the three churches committed to a week of travel and physical labor, as well as to their primary purpose of witnessing to others, through their labor, about their faith and feelings of being blessed by giving back, something the recipients of the aid may never have seen up-close and personally before.

From Sully First Reformed Church, volunteers were Gary and Dorothy Van Genderen, Brent De Jong, Donavon De Penning, Chuck Johnson, Mark Scholten, Scott Van Kooten, and Meldon Vos. The volunteers from Sully Christian Reformed Church were Judson and Pam Vos, and also joining the team was Don Van Wyk of Calvary Christian Reformed in Pella.

When the team arrived in Meridian on Sunday evening, they were met by Bruce and Marcia Fallis of Plano, TX, facilitators from World Renew who had received a three-week assignment in Meridian, the sixth-largest city in Mississippi, near the Alabama border and directly east of Jackson, the state capital. The Fallises served as tour guides for the Iowa group that evening, showing them homes in the affected areas where they might work throughout the upcoming week. The team stayed at a local Mennonite camp, where they lived for six days in a beautiful lodge-type building with a kitchen, central living area, and various sized rooms that could accommodate sleeping for up to six people at a time. The team of volunteers worked every day that week Monday through Friday, often working in temperatures that allowed them to enjoy the blooming of tulip trees, as well as the opportunity to forgo their heavy coats and work outside in shirt sleeves.

A typical day included getting up around 6:30 a.m., eating breakfast, and everyone making their own sack lunches. An extra lunch or two was made each day with the intention of sharing with homeowners if they wished to share that meal with the team. After morning Bible study or devotions, the group would try to arrive at the worksite by 8 a.m., and work with a few breaks until 4:30 p.m., packing up tools and returning to the camp to clean up and eat supper prepared by Dorothy Van Genderen. The group shared an evening Bible study after supper and topped off fellowship with dessert before retiring for the night.

Often splitting up into smaller groups to handle multiple projects simultaneously, the team provided labor and its own tools, while R3SM (Recover, Rebuild, Restore South Mississippi), a local disaster relief organization, provided building supplies. Some of the work done by the volunteers was actually the first time a repair had been done for a homeowner after up to two years of waiting for assistance. Other work was done to undo, and subsequently redo, shoddy work previously performed by unscrupulous contractors who often show up for hire from elsewhere after a natural disaster, taking advantage of homeowners who are in dire need of immediate home repairs. One such example was of a home where shingles had been set in rows upon a roof, but never nailed down. Because of the incomplete work, the home incurred additional damage from a leaky roof. Some homes had structural damage caused by fallen trees from the storm. One project entailed demolition of the kitchen and bathroom area of a home, even replacing the floor joists, and rebuilding the floor, walls, and roof. Another group of volunteers will pick up where the local group left off, a common occurrence in long-term volunteer disaster recovery work.

Due to the landscape in Meridian and close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, these homes do not have basements and are built on concrete columns to prevent termite damage. Termites are a large problem in the area, often causing widespread destruction in an unrepaired home that still contains damp wood or drywall.

One memorable moment was described by Chuck Johnson, who recalled working one day on a single woman’s home. While outside, he suddenly heard the homeowner begin to “wail and sob” from inside the house, and he thought she might need medical attention. But when he went up to the house to check on her condition, he was told by Pam Vos and Marcia Fallis that the woman was sobbing because she was overjoyed with thankfulness. The woman had $100 of her own that she wanted to give to help pay for the expense of her home repairs and the labor, but she was told that this group would not accept any of her money and that she should give it to her own church’s missions committee. She was overwhelmed by the thought of people from Iowa who were willing to come down to Mississippi, for no pay, to work on her house and expect nothing in return, simply doing what they felt was God’s bidding.

Gary Van Genderen summed up the thoughts of many of the volunteers about the houses they worked on: “Conditions are probably the worst we have seen in 15 years of doing these trips. Many houses have boarded up windows and partially collapsed roofs, and are still occupied. Seeing the conditions that some of the people live in is heartbreaking. As some of us discussed, we are so blessed in this area, and it was good to share some of that. We tried to be God’s hands and feet in this area, and hopefully made a difference in the lives of the people in whose homes we worked. I want to thank all the people who went for the great work and times of fellowship, and also to the community for all the prayer support.”

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