Photo: Courtesy West Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church
By Pastor Lee Ann Dunlap
You just never know when disaster will strike.
In late June of this year, what is best described as a “freight train of storms” stacked up in the mountains of West Virginia, unleashing the proverbial “thousand-year flood.” Eight or more inches of rain in twenty-four hours washed down the hills and gullies into small creeks, bigger channels and larger rivers. Homes, businesses and twenty five people were swept away, along with innumerable hopes and dreams. The picture on the right, from a street in White Sulphur Springs, shows a fraction of the destruction—one person’s home swept into another, with only rubble remaining.
In early August I had the privilege of trekking with a Volunteer In Mission team into one of southern West Virginia counties hardest hit. For three days we traipsed among the streets of Rainelle and White Sulphur Springs, listened to the sad and wonderful stories of both rescue and loss, and tried to offer a bit of help and hope to people struggling to rebuild their lives, their homes, their community and their sense of security.
Of the twenty-five lives swept away that June evening fourteen were from White Sulphur Springs. We heard their stories multiple times from multiple people— from neighbors and friends, from family members, from other volunteers. We heard of heroic rescues, inspiring deeds of compassion and even a few comic observations from those who survived to tell the tales. At the time I wondered what would happen if my community lost dozens of homes along with fifteen friends and neighbors in a single night. How would we cope? In much the same way as they, I suspect.
Despite the physical, emotional and spiritual devastation of these communities I was deeply impressed by the strength these survivors found from their faith in God, and the mutual support of community – and yes, even some help from the governments (although FEMA and EPA got mixed reviews!). We had lunch one day with a lively octogenarian volunteer at the relief center who had for weeks been assisting in the daily feeding and care of others. Afterward we left for a “spiritual care” visitation assignment. At the assigned address, we could see where the flood waters had peaked, well above porch level, and the downstairs rooms were in process of repair. The homeowner was not there we were told, but a phone call brought her to us in a few minutes. Lo and behold, it was our lunch companion, and a fellow United Methodist. What a blessing we had as she shared her story of faith with us.
As things worked out, it was on the first day of that mission trip that I got the word about my sister Marilyn’s death from cancer. This personal calamity had not been without warning, but as I traipsed through the rubble of flooded homes I could not help but compare that devastation to the loss I felt, and to devastating losses we all face from time to time—death of our loved ones, loss of health or employment, broken relationships or conflict in church or family. And like those survivors I marvel at the strength available to us through our faith in God and the support of the human community—even as the waters rage. Words can never express the gratitude I feel for the comforting words, cards, prayers of support, and deeds of compassion I have received during this time of sadness in the death of my sister. Thank you all for your understanding during those unscheduled mid-week family visits. Thanks especially to our capable lay servants who graciously stepped up to lead worship when I needed the family time.
I pray that we may all know that power of love and faith amidst our daily challenges. But even more, I pray that we may all take up the challenge to share that source of comfort with all who need assurance of God’s presence.
Pastor Lee Ann volunteers as a spiritual and emotional care worker. She recently joined a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission team to visit some of the hardest-hit communities in West Virginia affected by severe flooding.