Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Chatham UMC Hosted Sandy Evacuees

Dean Jeffrey Kuan sits with his students in the Chatham United Methodist Church fellowship hall.
CREDIT: John Schol

By Julia Kayser*
November 21, 2012—The closer I got to Madison, New Jersey, the worse Hurricane Sandy’s destruction became. My neighborhood of brick apartments and relatively young trees had barely been affected, but the Drew University campus—home to many of my friends—was completely devastated. Bearing gifts of blankets and camping mattresses, I drove at a snail’s pace past toppled trees and drooping power lines.
My friends were no longer on campus. School had been closed for the week and most people had gone to stay with nearby family and friends. One hundred forty-seven students, most of them seminarians and graduate students with families, had stayed behind. On Tuesday, October 30, Dean Jeffrey Kuan announced a campus-wide evacuation.
“My biggest joy in such a situation,” said Dean Kuan, “is the connectional system that I was able to draw on.” A nearby church, Chatham United Methodist, still had power. Thanks to the longstanding relationship of Rev. Tanya Bennett, associate chaplain, with that congregation, students without friends and family close by were able to caravan and camp out there.
A student does homework at the Chatham day shelter.
About 60 people spent three days at the church. There were large rooms designated for single men and for single women, while smaller Sunday-school classrooms became suites for families with children. When I arrived to offer my extra supplies, everyone was bundled up in coats, gloves, and hats. They gathered around tables in the fellowship hall, quiet in the face of the storm and a slower pace of life.
On the students’ second day of exile, Bishop John Schol of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference visited Chatham UMC. In an open letter, he wrote about meeting students, many of whom could not travel home during the storm because they lived “too far away in Africa, South Korea, Texas, Portland, Oregon, and a host of other places… They found Christ through a place to sleep, hot meals, and electricity.”
But, the electricity didn’t last. Student Susan Goodman wrote, “As the 24 hour benchmark of being at the church approached, we unexpectedly found ourselves in the dark once again.” Dinner was prepared by flashlight. Rev. Bennett brought her dog for a visit, which boosted morale.
One thing that flourished without electricity was conversation. “We learned much… in the stillness created by the absence of power and all that powers up,” wrote Bennett. “It was a holy time, even in an unholy circumstance.”

Children of the graduate students celebrated Halloween in the Chatham day shelter.
CREDIT: John Schol

Chatham UMC regularly hosts families in need of shelter, so they had some blankets, and the students brought additional bedding from their dormitories. Still, people got cold. Richenda Fairhurst, a second-year Masters of Divinity student and local pastor from Washington, wrote: “blankets and sweaters [were] like loaves and fishes, blessed and shared.”  
Dean Jeffrey Kuan said that he was very concerned about the children that night. The next afternoon, he met with campus police and determined that since power had turned on at Drew University, the students could return to their homes at last. “What a relief that was,” he said. “All the students and their families were extraordinarily cooperative, patient, and grace-filled. We experienced community together in the midst of a disaster.”
Every student I talked to expressed deep gratitude for Dean Kuan, Rev. Bennett, and Chatham UMC. In addition, many students found a silver lining in this difficult experience.
“I would have been stir-crazy if I hadn’t been able to spend time in community like this,” said Rebecca Patterson.
Betty Lynn Gannon said the storm gave people time to think, and also opportunities to be the hands of Christ for each other. “It’s nice to see my future colleagues living into their call of ministry,” she said.
How are you living into your call to provide aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy? The Drew students are back on campus now, but recovery work continues. Please make a donation to the UMCOR’s 2012 Hurricane Relief fund, Advance #3021787, and help UMCOR reach out to communities in need. 
*Julia Kayser is a writer and a regular contributor to She gives special thanks to Susan Goodman for her careful and comprehensive notes for this story.