(Rev. Chris Ackerman) - In the midst of a terrible disaster, I experienced Christ this past week. On Saturday morning, I began my drive from Panama City, FL to Selma, AL. It was a blessing to be able to go on Saturday after having not been there all week. The reason I wasn't there is because there was no work for me to do. It was because we have an amazing disaster response team! You see, I had to attend class all week at Asbury and I was unable to be in Selma in person. However, Dan Kirk, our conference ERT coordinator, was able to handle all the things that I would normally handle during a disaster. He had teams coming in from several other conferences as well as from all over our own conference. He had volunteers doing assessments, cutting trees, and tarping houses. He communicated with church leadership, city, state, and federal officials, and volunteer teams. He did all these things and more, and he did them exceptionally well.
Once I arrived in Selma and stepped inside Church Street UMC, it was a sight to behold. I was immediately greeted by my friend Chris from FEMA who is the area five mass care representative and Melinda Stallworth from the Governor's office of volunteer services. As I walked into the fellowship hall, I could see the hustle and bustle of what must’ve been well over 100 people. There were church members in the kitchen cooking meals; I’m told they’ve been preparing 800 meals a day since the tornadoes hit. There were volunteer teams, dirty from cutting trees and moving debris, others sitting and eating a hot meal, and a few were organizing supplies into care packages that had been donated. In the next room, FEMA representatives were present and helping individuals file for FEMA assistance. The most beautiful perspective that I found in all of this is that as I looked across the room at people sitting down eating a hot meal, I couldn’t really tell who was a volunteer, or who was a survivor of the storm, or who was a FEMA worker, or a church volunteer, or just someone who was hungry. All of these people, different colors, different genders, different roles, some survivors, some homeless, some there to help, all blending together sharing a meal. That’s when it hit me, is this what heaven is going to look like? Think about it. Every one of those people were in that room for one reason, a tornado had just ripped through town. Had that not happened, the church halls would've been silent on a Saturday afternoon. Instead, it had a group of people made in the image of Christ, all coming together as one body sharing a meal. The only difference between the fellowship hall at Church Street UMC and heaven, is that the reason we will have all kinds of people gathered around the banquet table is not going to be because of a tornado, but because of a Loving God, who sent his son to die on a cross, so that we might be reconciled to our creator and experience the fullness of his love. Come, Holy Spirit!
This week will be another busy one. In addition to our efforts in Selma, we have been working in multiple areas throughout our conference. We have communities from the Mississippi border all the way to the Georgia border that have significant damage. Our team will be working on grant funding for the recovery phase of all the tornadoes that have run through our conference in the last several months. We will continue with relief support in all our disaster affected areas and we will begin putting plans in place for long-term recovery assistance for uninsured individuals affected by these tornadoes.
This is certainly not a normal update on what’s happening in disaster ministry in our conference. But it is an update worth sharing. This past week I saw Christ in my colleagues, I saw Christ in my friends, I saw Christ in a church that has opened its doors to be a refuge for all those in need, I saw Christ in the eyes of survivors who have just experienced great tragedy, and I saw Christ in a room full of total strangers all sharing a meal. It has been a tangible reminder to me that even in the darkest of times Christ is with us.