FigTree Header 10.14



Review all 2022 Benefit videos

To advertise in print or online
Click here
Share this article
Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Inland Northwest volunteers bring hope to Gulf Coast

Verna DuBois of Chewelah United Church of Christ was heartened to find every major denomination, faith and organization “was, is and will continue to be along the Gulf Coast working, sweating, praying, pounding, cleaning, sweeping and toting” to clean up the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Harold Schoessler sits in rubble from home.

The Fig Tree recently interviewed several area people who have also gone through Presbyterian, Lutheran and Episcopal congregations. 

These volunteers have been overwhelmed by both the devastation they saw and the gratitude they met.  They have felt  a sense of being part of “something holy.”

Verna was one of five from her church on a 35-member team from 13 congregations in the Pacific Northwest United Church of Christ (UCC) Conference.

Another UCC work team of 18 also went in February 2006.  Randy Crowe, director of N-Sid-Sen camp on Lake Coeur d’Alene, led both work teams.  In October, he found recovery activity increasing. 

Two work teams from United Church of Christ (UCC) churches in the Northwest would have little impact in the overall, long-term recovery needs in the Gulf Coast area following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, but they are part of the one-by-one effort of teams from across the national United Church of Christ, other denominations, faiths and nonprofits.

Most coordinate with local and regional Interfaith Disaster Response groups formed by Church World Service.

The UCC response, like than of other denominations and faiths, is a coordinated effort of recruiting teams who pay their way or raise funds to support their trips.

In New Orleans, UCC teams are housed at Little Farms, St. Matthew’s and Good Shepherd UCC churches in three-week cycles.  Each church hosts for two weeks and then has a week off, so there are always two crews. 

The churches offer meals, lodging, laundry and clean-up facilities.  Volunteers sleep on air mattresses in Sunday school rooms.

The South Central United Church of Christ Conference hired a hurricane disaster recovery coordinator and has long-term volunteers to plan projects.

Beside homes volunteers were mucking out or rebuilding, Sheri Comfort of Chewelah UCC saw banners for Catholic Charities, Evangelical, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran and many other churches.

“It was an impressive statement that church people are doing much of the work.  Without our help, little would be done,” she said.

The Presbyterians, for example, have five volunteer villages set up by the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.  The villages are corrugated plastic tents with space for two or three to sleep on army cots.  There are similar shower tents and dining tents, plus a wood building for a kitchen.

Volunteers and staff arrange projects for groups that come from across the nation to D’Iverville, Orange Grove, Pearlington and Gautier, Miss., and to Luling and Houma, La.  Area groups and individuals have gone from Bethany, Colbert, First, Hamblen Park, Northwood and Whitworth Presbyterian churches.

Gulf Coast-gutting
Volunteers remove homeowner's damaged belongings.

Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD) has established a long-term recovery plan with a five-year, multi-phase response for the dioceses in Mississippi and Louisiana.  It focuses on livelihood and housing recovery, health and psycho-social care, case management and distribution, and other interventions.

The ERD has churches around the nation adopt churches there to pray for them, assist people returning, help Habitat for Humanity build housing and send donations.

Bob Runkle, chair of the Commission for Social Justice and Outreach Ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane, helps coordinate teams from around the country, including the partnering of his church, St. Luke’s Episcopal in Coeur d’Alene, with Trinity Episcopal in Pass Christian, Miss.

The UCC teams have included people from Inland Northwest churches in Colville, Pullman, Spokane Valley, Ritzville and Spokane, along with western Washington UCC and Methodist churches.

Each day, participants divided into five sub-groups to do projects.  They  reroofed homes, removed trees and shrubs, hauled homeowners’ belongings to the sidewalk for a trash truck to pick up, stripped walls and ceilings to the frames, sprayed them with bleach and installed dry wall. 

Workers wore coveralls, goggles, face masks and gloves to protect them from the mold growing in houses that had been under up to eight feet of floodwater.

“I have never worked so hard, sweat so profusely or had such a feeling of accomplishment in my 74 years,” Verna DuBois of Chewelah UCC said, likening the experience to the story of an old man asked why he was throwing starfish back into the ocean.  “It matters to this one,” the man said, flinging a starfish into the water.

“Each house is like a starfish—one house at a time,” she said.  “The devastation continues for blocks, miles and states.  It’s vast and in various stages of demolition and repair.  It may take years, even decades.”

As she worked on one home, Verna saw a demolition crew with large equipment razing a house across the street; an employee calking windows of a brick duplex nearly restored inside; a truck pouring concrete footings where the razed home of an elderly couple once stood; spray paint marks on two houses across the street indicating a body had been recovered in each.

“As we worked, hopefully we helped restore trust and faith of people of the area as their lives unfold from their loss,” she said.

Elsa Jewell was 12 when she went in February with her father, the Rev. Gary Jewell.  She said in the midst of all the devastation, “it felt good to do a tiny part of the rebuilding.”  She helped arrange for her school in Spokane to send some books to a school there.

Harold Schoessler, 87, a retired farmer and member of Zion Philadelphia Congregational Church in Ritzville, was the oldest on the February trip.  With skills as a carpenter and construction worker, he energized others as he helped on the roof or climbed ladders to put up siding.  He had not seen such devastation since World War II in Germany. 

Sheri told of emotional moments—finding photos and a wedding dress.

“The first house we ‘cleaned’ out—a nice way to say ‘gutted’—was in a poor neighborhood, where no one had insurance.  There were no dogs barking, children on bikes or other activities.  The ground was still toxic with residue from the soup of oils, paints, gas, dead bodies, animals and feces that had covered it for weeks,” she said.  “The second house was in an area with much rebuilding activity.”

When Jim Wills, retired for 10 years from resource development at Washington State University and a 30-year member of Pullman’s Community Congregational UCC, read of the opportunity, he went right to the church to volunteer.

Carrying a broken antique wooden cabinet from a house the last day, Jim, who appreciates antiques, asked the homeowner if the furniture was from her mother.  Her eyes teared.  The cabinet was her grandmother’s.

Sixteen-year-old high school junior Jody Noreau of Colville found it “awesome” to help:  “If I was in need, I would want someone to help me. 

“One woman who lost everything felt she lost nothing because she had her four children, her grandson, God and her life. I realized before I went that we do not need things, but I found it amazing that someone who lost everything was so happy with what she had,” Jody said.  “It strengthened my faith to see people not give up or blame God.”

Her mother, Nancy, said she would not have understood Jody’s experience if she had not gone.  Having begun attending the church a year ago because of her daughter’s involvement in the youth group, the experience in New Orleans strengthened her sense of the wider church ties.

Rich and Kay Brightman, members of Colville UCC for three years, were impressed with the denomination’s commitment to rebuild about 200 homes.

The Rev. Chip Laird, associate pastor at Community Congregational UCC in Pullman said the hands-on experience fits his spirituality.

“It was about our connection with one another in the group, with God and with the people we were helping, letting them know they are not alone,” he said.  “In the months since the disaster, many have come up against brick walls over and over.  Their feelings were still raw as they helped us take and tear everything out of their houses.”

Bobbi Virta, a spiritual director in Bellingham, said people still need to tell their stories.

“We need to be there with our hands and our presence,” she said. “I witnessed living the Gospel in a real and just way.”

When Bobbi asked a police officer what to say when she went home, he said, “You are home.  Wherever you go, you will take a piece of this home with you.” 

She finds that true: “We are brothers and sisters.  I realize there is work like this around the world,” Bobbi said.  “All the world is our home.”

The Rev. Linda Crowe of Veradale UCC listened as Debra Joseph, moderator of Central UCC in New Orleans told of praying for help as floodwaters rose up her porch steps.  A neighbor in a boat rescued her mother and her.  On returning, Debra was overwhelmed with the stench and all there was to do. She told Linda: “I gave each day to God.”

Linda commented:  “Little did we know that a flooded home could be a holy space.”

As many congregations, First Congregational in Colville held a benefit event—jazz festival and southern-cooked meal for 160 people—to raise funds for the four church members who went to New Orleans in October.  They raised more than $1,900.  Jody, the Brightmans and local other musicians performed jazz pieces and showed slides from the February trip.

 Duane Nightingale of Veradale UCC said engineer co-workers wondered before he left if it would be better to send the cost of the airfare they estimated at $6,000 for the whole team.

He said $6,000 would have covered replacing the church’s roof, installing new siding and repairing damaged siding, but would not have been enough to repair flood- and wind-damaged homes in the neighborhood.  He said the volunteer work was worth three times the cost of the tickets.

“Any time we respond to God’s call to help,” he said, “there is meaning and value that cannot be measured.”

For information, call 208-689-3489.


Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - © February 2007