We are in the Church season of Advent rejoicing in “Hope, Peace, Joy, Love” as I remember the season of “The Mother’s Day Tornado of 2014!” The small town of Beaver Crossing, where just over four hundred people live, is one church in the rural ministry parish where I serve. Every residence was damaged by this F-3 tornado storm. Yes, conflict, clash and collision are very much a part of chaos following a natural disaster. This article celebrates a healing of a misunderstanding when an offer of hospitality echoes the “no room at the inn” lodging need.
Monday night, the three churches in our small town gathered to worship in a Community Thanksgiving service. We expressed gratitude to God for the four thousand volunteers who shared their gifts, talents and hours of work helping our town and countryside heal from the ravage of the storm. A team of twelve young adults comprising an AmeriCorps volunteer group worked in our community for four weeks. This group stayed the longest time length in the recovery effort. As the Leadership Team of the Rev. Linda Stewart (Great Plains Disaster Response Coordinator), Pastors Dorothy and Mike Aspergren (on-site managers for the Disaster Relief project) and I planned for lodging needs, the drama began to unfold.
The church building had new shingles, windows were ordered and two showers in the basement bathrooms had been installed in preparation for the VIM teams. I was charting the schedule when I met my parishioner face to face, read the body language and heard the question, “Who gave permission for those AmeriCorps kids to stay in our church?” I admit at that moment I think I felt like I imagine Moses felt when “God spoke to Moses out of the whirlwind.” Yes, the prairie winds were fierce and at that moment I felt the fury of the whirlwind force of conflict clashing into my leadership decision as I answered, “I did.” Wow! Talk about a moment of truth as my mind raced. “So, what’s the problem with extending hospitality and welcoming the stranger?”
Thoughts tumbled in my mind as I was trying to breath in those deep calming breaths. “What was I thinking, assuming my Trustees would be thrilled to house twelve young adults for a month?” Then, a serene calm came over me as I explained that the Nebraska representative for AmeriCorps had made the executive decision to house the team in Seward. Seward, twenty miles away, with its population of sixty-five hundred offered entertainment and opportunities for young people to spend weekends and break times closer to Lincoln. Our conversation ended with talk about the benefits for the kids to be closer to Lincoln and not stuck in a small town. I was sure the young adults would be happier staying in another town.
The lesson learned for this pastor was even in the midst of chaos. Call another “unscheduled” Trustee meeting followed by an Ad Council meeting. Then, present the many sided benefits of a government sponsored young highly trained volunteer group of young adults offering their expertise and commitment to a community recovering from a natural disaster. Then, extend the welcome of gracious hospitality and welcome to our church sanctioned by the local church.
Our God works in wonderful ways of experiencing free gifts of love. This special group of AmeriCorps youth spent four weeks clearing brush and debris, painting houses and building porches, washing sanctuary windows, organizing disaster trailer storage on the church property, repositioning five tombstones in the cemetery and helping set up for our local Beaver Days summer carnival. Perhaps winning the hearts of local townspeople, as they experienced the volunteer youth in their causal uniforms of khakis and t-shirts helping run the booths, was the turning point in local small town acceptance.
The summer month was filled with work experience for the team in interactions with a community adjusting to loss of homes and property. The volunteers’ genuine enthusiasm and generosity gave hope to our community. Our Church dining room truly became a “Fellowship Hall” as area churches fed the AmeriCorps team and church members and community members stopped in to say hello, thank you and welcome to our community. As the winter winds start, I will continue giving thanks to God for our community for welcoming strangers and extending hospitality.