Church volunteers help storm victims to rebuild
One volunteer said she made the trip because it was the right thing to do.
MEDINA, Ohio (AP) -- "If you're United Methodist, you're in mission," said Letha Hickox. "More churches are coming to that."
Hickox, at 79 the oldest member of the Medina United Methodist Church mission to Pearlington, Miss., to assist survivors of Hurricane Katrina, is no stranger to missions.
Most churches support traditional mission work through prayer and monetary offerings or sending needed supplies thousands of miles to long-term missionaries in the field. They're the ones on the front line of faith outside their home congregations, working alongside local populations to improve living conditions, building schools and churches, spreading God's word.
Hands-on trips invite participants to put their faith into action through painting and repairing homes or churches, cleaning yard debris, running vacation Bible school programs for inner-city children and worshipping with their host congregation. It opens a wider world to youth in the church.
Doug Herr, one of three team leaders on the Pearlington trip, quoted St. Francis of Assisi: "Spread the gospel, and if necessary, use words."
Herr shared a comment from his wife, Lisa, in support of the trip.
"It is like when there is a death in the family," Herr related. "Everyone goes there for the first month or so. Months later, when the real healing needs to go on, most people have returned to their daily lives. Often, that is when the survivors need the most help."
For many, it's a vacation
Many people devote vacation time to the trips.
"Until you experience it, you don't understand that it can be better than a vacation," said Medina UMC member Lisa Wehrley. She said the Rev. Tal Lewis started the trips for the church with trips to Tyrand, W.Va.
Wehrley's son, Jansen, has been on 15 mission trips through the church.
But why go hundreds of miles when there's plenty to do right at home?
"Why go to Mississippi?" Suzanne Shoemaker, one of Herr's co-leaders to Pearlington, echoed the question. It was a return trip for Shoemaker, who went to Mississippi with a small group last September.
"The same answer keeps coming back to me, and that is it was the right thing to do. I was able to go, and it was clear to me that the people of Mississippi needed our help," she said. "My goal at this point is to increase awareness of the needs and help get the necessary supplies and labor to those individuals, once again, because it's the right thing to do. I truly believe God placed it on my heart to go last September and again this year, and I suspect he has additional plans to use me in this capacity again in the future."
Sometimes, said Walt Evans, the third co-leader to Pearlington, the most important thing was stopping to listen.
"We were very task-oriented at first when we went down in September, but people started sharing their stories, and they needed that as much as us patching roofs or clearing brush."
Here's the trend
The Rev. Dr. David Tennant, pastor of Medina UMC, said in the past 10 years there's been a growing hunger for hands-on mission work.
"When I was growing up, people might visit missions, but few went and actively did short-term missions. Most raised money for mission work," he said.
The current mission activity started with churches offering adult-supervised, youth-oriented trips, and the desire to minister through work was contagious.
"It's often a chance for parents to spend time with their children," the Rev. Mr. Tennant said, adding that it offered them the opportunity to experience a different culture and see there were real needs. "I think it's something every Christian should do at least once."
Mr. Tennant said there will be a special Bishop's Appeal in September for funding to assist and rebuild Methodist churches destroyed in the hurricanes.
The Rev. Scott Simmons, pastor of Bethel United Methodist Church in Wooster, whose congregation partnered with Medina, said his church was "on fire" for the work.
During a pre-trip meeting, the Rev. Mr. Simmons said: "Our task is to let people know our true foundation is Jesus Christ, not just the hammer and nails. I believe everyone in this room was chosen to be the answer to prayer, to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ."
Funding the trip
His congregation raised money to fund their way south through flea markets and bake sales. The Rev. Mr. Simmons' wife and several other women of the church prayed as they knitted dishcloths and attached a small note of encouragement to each one. The group wanted to distribute the cloths and Bibles to the people they served in Pearlington as reminders that someone cared.
Someone like Shoemaker.
"It's hard to come back to our regular jobs after seeing the challenges that face these individuals daily," Shoemaker said. "You worry about the people you have left behind and want to find ways to continue to help them with their recovery. It is my plan to return to southern Mississippi, specifically Pearlington, as soon as I can."
That will have to wait for a while -- Shoemaker has used up all her vacation time this year -- but Pearlington remains at the heart of her prayers.