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Disaster relief requires teamwork

Cleaning up a basement flood

United Methodists belong to a larger disaster response network that serves the mission of Jesus Christ here in Michigan and beyond.

Michigan Conference Communications

Ready or not, disasters are a fact of life. Natural disasters include flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, forest fires, tsunamis, and drought. War is also a disaster that disrupts life for many people throughout the world.

It is estimated that approximately 6,800 natural disasters occur each year worldwide. These disasters affect 218 million people and claim 68,000 lives at a cost of $74.4 billion.

News reporting on the ongoing war in Ukraine, which began one year ago, estimates over 40,000 Ukrainian civilian deaths, 100,000 military casualties, and the displacement of over 12 million people. In addition, the war has already cost the world economy $2.8 trillion.

Disasters with devastating consequences for thousands of people even occur in Michigan. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), parts of Michigan were designated for disaster relief in 2020 and again in 2021 following severe storms, tornadoes, and massive flooding in parts of our state made worse by dam and local systems failures. Cleanup and home restoration for many who were affected by these disasters continue.

Responding effectively to pressing human needs after disasters requires extraordinary teamwork. This article examines three key components of the United Methodist disaster response network that serves the mission of Jesus Christ here in Michigan and around the world: (1) the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR); (2) Midwest Mission, the major disaster relief distribution center for the Midwest in Pawnee, IL; and (3) the Michigan Conference Disaster Response and Recovery Team.


United Methodists have been responding to disasters globally since 1940, when the Methodist Committee on Overseas Relief (MCOR) was founded to respond to displaced and vulnerable persons in the wake of World War II. At its founding, MCOR’s stated purpose was “to serve as a voice of conscience among Methodists to act in the relief of human suffering without distinction of race, color, or creed.” That founding principle is still true today.

This mission arm of our denomination was renamed the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) in the 1970s and is at work today in 62 countries on five continents. UMCOR prides itself on being one of the first agencies to respond to major disasters and one of the last to leave when the work has been completed. Watch the video below, which provides updates on UMCOR’s response to the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.

Each year, a denominational offering received in local churches on UMCOR Sunday, this year on March 19, 2023, covers the cost of UMCOR’s small staff and disaster response trainers who travel across the country to equip volunteers for this important disaster relief work. In addition, because the annual UMCOR Sunday offering covers all administrative overhead costs for the agency, 100% of all other contributions given to UMCOR throughout the year go directly to designated disaster relief needs.

UMCOR’s website summarizes its Christian mission succinctly:

    • UMCOR comes alongside those who suffer from natural or human-caused disasters—famine, hurricane, war, flood, fire, or other events—to alleviate suffering and serve as a source of help and hope for the vulnerable.
    • UMCOR provides relief, response, and long-term recovery grants when events overwhelm a community’s ability to recover on its own. UMCOR also provides technical support and training for partners to address emerging and ongoing issues related to disaster relief, recovery, and long-term health and development.

In recent years, UMCOR staffing, training, and funding have been of critical help in support of locals and volunteers responding to disasters here in Michigan.

According to Dan O’Malley, Michigan Conference Disaster Response Coordinator, UMCOR provided a vital grant in response to the 2017 flooding in mid-Michigan that displaced 11,000 people. The grant helped fund two disaster case managers and training for local volunteers by UMCOR consultants.

In 2020, UMCOR helped with the Central Bay District flood recovery with project grants that provided training for five disaster case managers, a supervisor, and two construction managers. It also provided $600,000 in direct recovery assistance to Arenac and Iosco Counties.

In 2021, UMCOR’s assistance in the Metro Detroit area flood recovery has helped support and train 30 disaster case managers, three resource coordinators, and three construction coordinators, and provided an $850,000 grant for direct assistance to those in need.

Individuals wishing to contribute directly to UMCOR may give through their local church offering on UMCOR Sunday, March 19, or through the General Board of Global Ministries website via this secure link. Financial contributions also fulfill Step 6 of EngageMI, the mission engagement program of the Michigan Conference.

Midwest Mission

This important missions hub in Pawnee, IL, located five miles from Springfield, began 22 years ago by Rev. Jack Travelstead, a United Methodist pastor passionate about helping with disaster relief in the Midwest following a string of floods in the 1990s. At the time, UMCOR Sager Brown in Baldwin, LA, was the only relief supply depot.

Travelstead started collecting and shipping relief supplies out of a garage that is still on the Midwest Mission property. That initial garage has since been supplemented by three large warehouses with 35,000 square feet of storage. In addition, Midwest Mission has offices for nine full-time employees, eight dorm rooms, four apartments, and 13 campsites to house volunteers who come there to work throughout the year.

Volunteers packing rice meal bags
Volunteers at Midwest Mission in Pawnee, IL, pack rice meal bags for disaster relief. ~ photo courtesy Mallory Webster and Midwest Mission

Midwest Mission works with partners in the Midwest and globally to assemble and distribute disaster relief, health, education, and micro-business supplies. They specialize in assembling relief kits like cleaning kits, student kits, hygiene kits, rice meals, and more. Midwest Mission’s primary support comes from United Methodist volunteers and churches, although they welcome all. This center is one of seven UMCOR relief supply depots across the United States.

Midwest Mission collects, verifies, assembles, and ships UMCOR kits in response to disasters in the United States. (UMCOR only sends kits within the United States. In the event of international disasters, they send money to fund disaster relief efforts.)

Map of United States
Map shows places in the United States where Midwest Mission has sent disaster relief help. ~ photo courtesy Mallory Webster, Midwest Mission

The annual Midwest Mission operations budget is just under $800,000 and is supported 99% by individual contributions from people who believe in the work.

In 2022, Midwest Mission sent 299 shipments of domestic relief supplies and 48 additional international shipments valued at $7.99 million in aid. Chantel Corrie, Director of Midwest Mission, states that volunteers complete every kit and project. “We are excited to offer many off-site and at-home opportunities to help people get involved in this ministry without having to travel to us.”

In 2022, 77 volunteers from Michigan provided help at Midwest Mission. In addition, 135 Michigan volunteers participated in the two emergency food packing events for Ukraine held at Northville: First UMC and in Mt. Pleasant. Midwest Mission has also provided help with the flooding cleanup around Detroit by sending cleaning kits, hygiene kits, and student kits.

Dick and Judy Sena provide the designated Michigan drop-off site for supplies to be forwarded to Midwest Mission. The Senas have been passionate supporters of Midwest Mission since participating in a mission trip from their home congregation at Grand Ledge: First UMC to Midwest Mission in 2009. Their initial service inspired them to return to Pawnee in 2010 for a month of service, and they ended up staying for two years as volunteer directors.

Now Dick and Judy Sena willingly receive donations from churches and individuals in Michigan, store them in their large trailer, and then deliver them to Midwest Mission, where the goods are packed and shipped. Dick indicated that they most recently received with gratitude 30 cleaning kits (formerly known as flood buckets) that had been assembled by United Methodists from Ludington for use in flood relief.

Michigan Conference Disaster Response and Recovery Team

An essential Michigan component in responding to disasters comes from the leadership, expertise, organization, and training offered by our Michigan Conference Disaster Response and Recovery Team.

Current team leaders of this effort are Dan O’Malley and Rev. Bob Miller of Plymouth: First UMC. The team also includes District Disaster Response Coordinators. O’Malley has been volunteering 30 hours a week in his retirement after his first career as an engineer. A good part of his efforts is currently going toward serving as a board member for After the Storm, a Michigan Conference nonprofit that launched last year. Watch the video below to learn more about After the Storm (known in the video as Michigan Disaster Response and Recovery, MiDRR).

Ministry Shares from Michigan congregations support the disaster team’s work by paying travel expenses for O’Malley and his team. He says, “These funds don’t go very far, but we make do and use Zoom a lot to meet and stay connected. We rely entirely on second-mile designated financial gifts and offerings received to respond to specific disaster situations as they occur.”

O’Malley uses the chart below as part of his presentation when training disaster response volunteers in churches around Michigan to help explain the process of meeting needs and organizing volunteers and communities for recovery after a disaster. He knows from experience that without adequate planning, training, and preparation, people with good intentions can sometimes cause harmful unintended consequences.

Flow chart
Disaster relief requires teamwork and long-term assistance, and United Methodists are helping at every stage of the process. ~ image courtesy Dan O’Malley

O’Malley praised the efforts of two Disaster Response Teams from Grand Rapids: First UMC that traveled at their own expense and spent two weeks assisting with cleanup in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria that ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017.

O’Malley also noted that just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Michigan Conference Disaster Response and Recovery Team had registered and trained 250 Early Response Team (ERT) members in Michigan.

Currently, volunteers are assisting in finishing restoration efforts following the tornado in Gaylord, MI, on May 20, 2022. That tornado with 150-mile-an-hour winds touched down for 22 minutes covering 18 miles and throwing debris 20,000 feet high. The storm heavily damaged 12 homes and several businesses and devastated a mobile home park.

O’Malley is grateful that relief agencies often partner to share resources, volunteers, and personnel to help meet urgent needs in the wake of a disaster. In Gaylord, a valued partner has been the Otsego Community Foundation, which has helped fund the cleanup.

After the Storm is partnering with others to help address the needs of the 100,000 Detroit area households that experienced major flood damage following the record rains on June 25-26, 2021, which caused Detroit sewers to back up in basements. Michigan United Methodists are working closely with the Society of St. Vincent DePaul and Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency in the management of the $198 million that FEMA has given in direct assistance to homeowners affected by this disaster. In addition, $68 million in government assistance has been disbursed for rental cost reimbursement for persons displaced by the flooding. UMCOR has offered an additional $850,000 in direct assistance to help respond to this disaster.

The Disaster Response Ministry web page maintains information and links for disaster response training events as well as information about how to donate financially.

The Michigan Conference Disaster Response and Recovery Team will be hosting a cleaning kit rally during the season of Lent this year. More details on drop-off locations and what items are on the cleaning kit packing list will be given in an upcoming issue of MIconnect.

The news reminds us that disasters are regular occurrences. They are usually urgent. Disasters happen globally and even close to home. Jesus teaches that helping persons in need is a priority of eternal consequence. His parables of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7), Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), and the last judgment (Matthew 25: 31-46) give the highest praise for compassionate and generous responders to persons in need.

United Methodists here in Michigan are joining others in the Midwest, throughout the rest of the United States, and all across the world as they respond in faith to Jesus’ call to serve.

Last Updated on February 28, 2023

The Michigan Conference