Just about every home in the Cedar Rapids area has been impacted by the storms...

In Iowa, hard-hit churches and faith-based organizations rally to help out in wake of derecho storm

by: Emily McFarlan Miller
Aug. 20, 2020 (RNS) — Pam Schulz has never seen anything like it.

Just about every home in the Cedar Rapids area has been impacted by the storms that swept across the Midwest last week with hurricane-force winds, according to Schulz, the executive director of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, a congregation in Marion, Iowa, affiliated with Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ.

Some have trees downed in their lawns. Some have trees through their houses and on their cars.

Some, more than a week later, still don’t have electricity.

And unlike the flooding that swept Cedar Rapids about a decade ago, the damage is too widespread to escape.

RELATED: Churches and other faith-based groups lend a hand after historic Nebraska floods

“It’s going to be a long recovery,” Schulz said.

“When we had the flood here in 2008, most people who went to serve could come home to a house with air conditioning and what looked normal. Well, you can’t even drive down the street without seeing damage now anywhere in the entire community.”

In Iowa, churches are working together and partnering with faith-based organizations from across the country to offer aid after the unusual windstorm, called a derecho, left a trail of devastation from South Dakota to Ohio on Aug. 10.

“I feel really blessed that we have the ability to talk to one another and work together in this,” Schulz said.

President Donald Trump surveyed the damage from Air Force One on Tuesday (Aug. 18) after signing part of Iowa’s disaster aid request, and the storm came up that night, too, at the Democratic National Convention.

With wind gusts up to 112 mph, the derecho not only destroyed homes and knocked out power to millions across the Midwest, it also flattened cornfields and toppled grain bins. It’s been blamed for three deaths in Iowa, as well as one in Indiana.

Many of the volunteers working to repair damage, remove debris and distribute aid are community members who themselves have been impacted by the storm, Schulz said. They tell her others have it worse than them, that they’re happy to help.

But, more than a week in, she said, “People are getting tired. You can just hear it and see it in their faces when they come through our distribution site.”

St. Mark’s, one of the largest churches in the area, was “incredibly blessed,” Schulz said. There is some damage to the exterior of its building and the cross that stands outside, she said, but other churches are so badly damaged, you can see their sanctuaries as you drive past.

The Lutheran church is acting as a distribution site for Linn Area Partners Active in Disaster, handing out meals, water and other needed items in its parking lot.

It also is hosting a team from Eight Days of Hope, a nondenominational Christian organization the church has partnered with for years, sending volunteers around the country to assist after disasters.

What’s “surreal,” Schulz said, is that a team from Eight Days of Hope was already planning to come to St. Mark’s to finish work on a warehouse in Cedar Rapids that it will use to coordinate responses to disasters across the Midwest.

Then disaster struck the church.

Other faith-based organizations partnering with churches in the area include Samaritan’s Purse, the evangelical disaster relief organization headed by Franklin Graham.

Keeth Willingham, the program manager on the ground in Cedar Rapids for Samaritan’s Purse, said the coronavirus pandemic has added more considerations for organizations coming to the area from across the country.

That means sending out smaller groups of volunteers, Willingham said.

Samaritan’s Purse staff and any volunteers traveling from more than an hour away must test negative for COVID-19 to prevent bringing the virus to the community, he said. And all volunteers must wear masks and keep 6 feet between themselves and others, even as they’re praying with homeowners, cutting wet drywall and carpet out of houses and dragging tree limbs off property.

“We’re doing everything we can to ensure we’re not being a part of any of the problems associated with COVID,” he said.

When it comes to the role faith plays in the aftermath of a disaster, the Rev. Sherrie Ilg said her church — historic St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids — is figuring that out as it goes.

“Definitely there’s a physical response, and we can be the hands and feet of Christ in this community,” Ilg said

Like St. Mark’s, the Methodist church has been collecting and distributing resources to its neighbors.

In addition, the pastor said, “There’s a lot for people to process on an individual level — What do I need to do to care for myself first? — putting that oxygen mask on first before you can help other people.”

On Sunday, with power and cellphone outages impacting much of her congregation, Ilg filmed a short reflection on her phone, sitting at her dining room table, and then went over to the church to meet anybody who wanted to drop off donations or just talk about how they were doing.

“God continues to be our shelter after this storm,” she said.

“We’ve made it through that storm. Now God continues to be a center and a place of grounding ourselves.”

Editor’s note: The name of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church has been corrected.


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