Vern Olson calls the fellowship hall of St. Edward United Methodist Church “our own little Walmart.”
Cleaning supplies take up one corner, paper towels and toilet paper are stacked in the lobby. Fresh pillows are stacked along the wall adjacent to the sanctuary, and a variety of donated food is in the center.
When a visitor remarks how many items are in the fellowship hall, the person is told it’s about one-fifth of what it was at its peak a few days earlier.
“I think we can safely say we’ve ran three semi-loads of stuff through here,” said Olson, pastor of the Boone County, Nebraska, church.
Twelve days earlier, floods from Beaver Creek engulfed much of the town of 700 people. At last count, 83 buildings, including 13 houses, were destroyed, and 163 people were displaced. Should those people leave, Olson said, it would take one-fourth of the town’s population.
The St. Edward church, built 30 years ago, had water encroach its front yard and onto the concrete parking lot that was just poured last year. Olson feared the water would get into the sanctuary, but it didn’t.
“God said, ‘I’ll take care of the church, you take care of my people,’” said Olson, in his fifth year as pastor at St. Edward, part of a four-point charge.
The church hosted three meals a day for about 200 volunteers and those who were displaced. Donations from Subway and Pizza Hut in nearby cities helped provide the sustenance.
Church members have volunteered to help however they could since the floods hit.
“We were blessed here,” Olson said. “I can’t even imagine how many hours our members have logged in the community.”
The United Methodist Church worked hand-in-hand with the local Catholic and Lutheran churches, he said. The Catholic Church serves as a shelter, while the United Methodist Church — with the largest space for the donated items — began being used after the town fire hall no longer was large enough.
The town’s only grocery store, whose owners are members of his congregation, was expected to be back open in a few days. The church was the only location for food items.
“They were pushing hard to get the grocery store open as a sign of hope as much as getting back to business,” Olson said. “That’s the heart of a town like this.”
Among those getting food was Jarvis Sayle, whose basement was socked with 9 feet of water.
“We got lucky it didn’t get on the main floor,” he said. “We’ve got lakes running through both sides of the house.”
Sayle, holding back tears, said he was grateful for what the church had done.
“This does wonders,” he said. “It’s amazing how a community can come together in such a tragedy.”
The church already had operated a clothing closet for the community, Olson said, and had specialized in used prom dresses – but the St. Edward High School prom, scheduled for the last weekend of March, had to be postponed.
Lisa Rasmussen was among a trio of women who had volunteered every day since the floods for the church.
“Families are coming in with young ones, and basically the clothes on their backs are the only thing they have right now,” she said. “There are many families here that needed this help, definitely.”
Tim Stacy, a vicar at Zion Lutheran Church in Sutton, Nebraska, brought a pickup full of bedding his congregation has donated to St. Edward. Helping that church has special meaning for Stacy, a St. Edward native who attended the Presbyterian Church that merged with the United Methodists.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” he said. “It took this village to raise me.
“It’s so incredibly moving to see people care enough to provide all this,” he added. “It certainly is an incredible blessing, and kind of overwhelming for me.”
The experience, Olson said, has caused everyone to reach out to the community to others with whom they might not normally interact. Olson and his wife, Cindy, are housing a family in their basement and are letting another family use half of the parsonage garage for storage.
Olson and his congregation are also serving as emotional support for those whose lives have been damaged by the floods.
“Our people have been very good about letting people talk,” he said. “We’ve all absorbed a lot of tears.”
The bright side, Olson said, is that his congregation can now practice what he’s been preaching.
“I said, ‘You remember me doing all that preaching about being out in the world?’” he said. “They’ve gone above and beyond what you’d expect them to do.”
A St. Edward native who also farms in the area, Olson said the flood rivals another five decades earlier.
“I was a little boy in ‘66 when the last big flood came through this area,” he said. “I’ve had two. That’ll be enough.”