My severe weather alert sounded about 12:40am on Tuesday, March 3rd. Leann, Matt and I hurried downstairs to our bathroom, and between the TV turned to local weather reports in the room next to us, and our cell phone weather apps, we could see the path of the tornado was going to pass south of us. But the storm was tracking straight for the community where I serve as pastor: Faith Lutheran Church in Lebanon, Tennessee. I immediately started calling members of my congregation I knew were in close proximity to the path, to warn them of the approaching storm. And I prayed. Within a few minutes the TV was showing pictures of Downtown Nashville’s devastation, and began reporting on severe damage in East Nashville, Mt. Juliet, and Lebanon, and in less than an hour, reporting on significant damage in the communities just west of Cookeville, 90 miles east of Nashville.
In less than seven hours after my weather alert wake up, I had received an email from Mary Brunso, the chairperson of the Southeastern Synod Disaster Recovery Committee, of which I have been a member for several years. The email was to the committee: a motion and vote for emergency funds to respond to the disaster. The sun was barely up enough to light the scenes of devastation and destruction (and the death of over two dozen people), but our Synod was already there for us to begin the response.
While hundreds of people were pouring in to volunteer with the very much needed cleanup, the money that our Southeastern Synod made available started the wheels turning for very important aspects of the response: helping fund the receiving of donated supplies, covering the cost of a coordinator to manage the disaster.
Within 48 hours, the community of Lebanon held a meeting of city leaders, pastors, and other groups to begin to organize for the large job ahead of us. Bishop Strickland had asked me to temporarily shift my focus from Advocacy, to Disaster Ministry, assisting Pastor Morgan Gordy, who is the Synod liaison to the Disaster Recovery Committee, and who was already deeply involved in responding to the direct hit on Nashville, as well as pointing me to resources that we could make available. I was able to attend meetings in Lebanon and Mt. Juliet, on behalf of our Synod, and when the gathered organizations were sharing information on what resources they had, the offer of funding from our Southeastern Synod Lutherans, to help establish a headquarter location for both communities, as well as funding to provide a coordinator for the recovery, gave momentum to other denominational representatives to join in.
The funding from our Synod also allowed me to respond to a representative from the Salvation Army, who was very aware of Lutheran Disaster Response, and a retreat model called “Camp Noah,” (designed to help children and youth cope with the trauma of disaster). She asked if we might partner with them to conduct that retreat at the Salvation Army camp on a nearby lake this summer.
The years of preparedness work of our Synod Disaster Recovery Committee also means we have access to pastors and deacons, including licensed counselors, trained to provide “emotional-spiritual” care for survivors of the tornado, as well as care for first responders and volunteers who need to process the emotional impact of working through disaster.
There is more to report, and I am sure we will keep you updated regularly, but I felt it was very important for you to hear that your Mission Support to our Synod helps support our ministries such as the Synod Disaster Recovery Committee, which allow us, in very direct and real ways, to be (as Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton reminds us) “the church for the sake of the world.”