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In Iowa, Hard-Hit Churches and Faith-Based Organizations Rally to Help Out in Wake of Derecho Storm

Billy Graham Chaplains, Samaritan’s Purse Among Those Responding

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.

“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. Historic St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids has also been collecting and distributing resources to its neighbors.

“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.

The Billy Graham Rapid Response Team (RRT) has also deployed chaplains to provide emotional and spiritual support to victims of the storm.

“We are deploying crisis-trained chaplains to share the love of Christ with people who are going through a tough time in this already very difficult year,” said Josh Holland, assistant director of the RRT. “We have deployed to the Cedar Rapids area in the past and appreciate the opportunity to serve that community once again.”

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.