When an EF3 tornado barreled through the small communities of Ottawa and Naplate in north-central Illinois on Feb. 28, there was an immediate response to help from United Methodists.
The Rev. Cheri Stewart of Ottawa’s First United Methodist Church says it’s never more evident that the church really is a compassionately caring Christian community than when there’s a tragedy.
“Ever since the tornadoes struck, I’ve seen that caring compassion expressed in four simple words, ‘how can I help?’”, said Stewart.
She said the night of the tornado youth from Ottawa FUMC sent her texts asking ‘how they could help’. The next morning Dwayne Jackson, NIC Director of Risk Management, called the church asking ‘how he could help?’. Soon after the Rev. Laura Wilson Underwood from neighboring Morris UMC called asking the very same question: ‘how can I help?’
NIC disaster coordinator, the Rev. Christina Vosteen emailed the churches asking ‘how she could help’ and by the end of that first day after the tornado many NIC clergy, active and retired, had reached out to Stewart each asking: ‘How can I help?’.”
“All these offers to help and I had no idea what to say to them,” said Stewart whose church was also in the midst of organizing two funerals (not related to the tornadoes). “All I knew was no one was getting in or out of affected areas without identification of their residence. All we knew was truck and truck after truck…utility after utility truck, garbage trucks, insurance company trucks and city trucks and the police were everywhere to help and secure access to the affected areas. It was chaos, really.”
Fortunately, none of the churches or parsonages of the three UMC churches, First, Epworth and Evangelical, sustained substantial damage even though the twister narrowly missed their properties. Epworth UMC’s Rev. Carolyn Lukasick says they were very fortunate to suffer nothing more than hail damage to their roof, however, they had to cancel Ash Wednesday’s service and supper since the church lost power.
When the sun rose the day after the storm, help began to pour in. Church members young and old stepped up to assist their neighbors with meals, caring cards from children, youth-led cleanup and a spiritual support table at the Multi-Agency Resource Center (MARC).
Stewarts says the FUMC’s youth group raked and helped clean up several yards of fallen trees and debris on the Sunday after the tornado.
“The youngest member of the group that day was Reily who at supper that night showed me two rocks he’d found while helping that afternoon,” said Stewart. “Reily told me that he picked up the rocks to help him remember how they had helped!’”
Even though First UMC had back to back funeral dinners at the church following the tornado, Stewart says there were no questions asked to help support the United Church of Christ in Ottawa which was preparing 200 meals a day for the victims. “Our kitchen crew said ‘absolutely we can help’ and we provided and delivered the meal Monday night giving our UCC neighbors a break from their responsibilities.”
Epworth members collected supplies for the local resource center and assisted an older couple in the church who lost a sunroom addition and garage.
“They came to church the following Sunday expressing how fortunate they were,” said Lukasick. “Our Lenten focus this year will be less reflection and more about how we can BE the church for our community at this time.”
Bishop Sally Dyck and DeKalb District Superintendent Young-Mee Park visited all three Ottawa churches during the following Sunday morning services to offer a message of hope, prayers and support.
“Warm thanks to all who were willing to help out on such a short notice,” said Park. “It was possible only thanks to our connection and willingness of our pastors to help out.”
Park said 15 pastors (14 from DeKalb District, one from Aurora) volunteered their time to fill all the shifts covering 15 hours over two days at the MARC. At that event, they had at least 40 people stop by the table and they prayed with at least 10 different people.
“No other churches could do it, but us, the UMC, thanks to our strong connection,” said Park. “I think our presence in the MARC with the mission of providing “Spiritual Support” was a witness and ministry in itself.”
Stewart says one of the last clients they saw at the MARC was a mom and a daughter.
“When the mom came through she asked us to pray for her daughter whose home in Naplate had a lot of damage,” said Stewart. “The ERT crew from Morris UMC, which had come to volunteer and at first was turned away, was an answer to our prayer.”
Stewart says minutes after the connection was made the ERT crew was able to help with debris removal at the daughter’s home as soon as they are able to get a dumpster.
“We witnessed so many UMC connections, so much help and so much caring compassion being shown to the people of Ottawa and Naplate,” said Stewart. “We’re grateful to be a part of the UMC connection.”
The North Central Illinois Council of Governments (NCICG) says volunteers are no longer needed at this time but there may be possible requests for help in the long-term recovery efforts in the future.
The Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services is accepting relief donations on behalf of the Ottawa/Naplate Recovery Assistance Effort. Anyone wanting to donate items following the tornado must call 815-433-0798 and receive an authorization number. Please also call before purchasing any items so that they may coordinate on what items are needed most urgently.
For those who would like to make a monetary donation, you may contribute to the NIC Advance for Disaster Response. Checks can be made out to Northern Illinois Conference, memo: Advance #50000148
Northern Illinois Conference
PO Box 5646
Carol Stream, IL 60197-5646
For the latest updates and information on how you can help, visit the NIC Disaster Response Facebook page.