By Cheryl Magness
Hurricane Ian made landfall in Fort Myers, Fla., on Sept. 28, 2022 — reportedly the deadliest storm to hit the state since 1935 and the third most costly weather event ever. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Ian claimed at least 150 lives and caused $113 billion in damages.
The response to Ian is ongoing, and the LCMS remains involved in that response.
From Feb. 26 to March 18, the Synod partnered with the LCMS Florida-Georgia District and Zion Lutheran Church in Fort Myers to host three one-week volunteer deployments geared at college students on spring break. Each week included LERT (Lutheran Early Response Team) training as well as training and work in a variety of rebuilding projects underway in Fort Myers’ Harlem Heights neighborhood.
The Rev. Dr. Ross Johnson, director of LCMS Disaster Response, described the effort as “an amazing blessing to the homeowners who suffered enormous loss from Hurricane Ian. All the homeowners I met who were being served by our teams broke down in tears of thankfulness for the help they were receiving. They had not known how they were going to rebuild their homes after the storm, but the Lord used the willingness of these young people, who gave up their spring breaks to serve, to make a huge impact. It was wonderful to see the students and homeowners building relationships, becoming friends and even praying together.”
‘Just to serve’
The repairs included drywalling, painting and cabinet/flooring installation. Will Schlueter, a freshman in the pre-seminary program at Concordia University Chicago (CUC), River Forest, Ill., said he began the week installing cabinets in one home, “but about halfway through, I got switched to a different home. There, I laid down plywood on the floor, and that was a lot of fun.”
Schlueter came “just to serve my neighbor and spread God’s Word.” This was his first time to go on a mission trip, something he has been wanting to do, especially as a future pastor. He said the best part of the week was “the Christian fellowship and the service I was able to provide for my neighbor. … We as Christians are to be the hands and feet of Christ, and … mission trips are a wonderful way to do that.”
Joel and Kathy Mathews, members of Abiding Savior Lutheran Church in Gainesville, Fla., served as site managers. According to Joel, the teams worked on at least a dozen homes, including four that were referred by local LCMS congregations (St. Michael and Bethlehem, both in Fort Myers). One of those belongs to the art teacher at St. Michael Lutheran School. “We tore out her flood-damaged flooring the week after Thanksgiving,” Mathews said, “and were back last week to install a new sub-floor so a contractor could lay tile.” In another home, this one belonging to a Bethlehem member, “We re-painted the inside walls and ceiling after a contractor did a shoddy job and skipped out. … [Now we are] installing door trim, baseboards and kitchen cabinets.”
Five Synod schools and one public university with a Lutheran student organization sent students to take part in the service project, with each group serving one week:
- Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne (Feb. 26–March 4) — Six seminarians
- CUC; Concordia University St. Paul (CSP), St. Paul, Minn.; and the University of Georgia, Athens (March 5–11) — 20 students
- Concordia University Wisconsin (CUW), Mequon, Wis., and Concordia University Ann Arbor (CUAA), Ann Arbor, Mich. (March 12–19) — 26 students
The cost of travel and lodging was covered partly by LCMS Disaster Response and partly by the students themselves.
Regaining ‘a sense of normal’
Rebecca Pumphrey, a student in the pre-deaconess program at CSP, said she appreciated seeing what her church body is doing to help those affected by the hurricane. “People say, ‘It would be great if the [church] did this or that’ … but we do!” Pumphrey said. She added that seeing the damage firsthand was “eye-opening. … It makes things real.”
The Rev. Thomas Gundermann serves as campus pastor at CSP. Gundermann, who accompanied the CSP group, agreed that trips like this one allow volunteers to see the need as well as to experience the blessings of serving.
“The last thing the homeowner said to us before we left … was that they will be able to sleep inside their house for the first time … in five months. … We hope we are used well. We hope we are helpful. We hope we don’t create more work for others after we leave. … But we are sure of God’s love and blessing for us in Jesus as we offer a small gift of service in His name.”
Kylie Gilmore, director of CUC Campus Engagement, echoed Gundermann’s words.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity for our students,” Gilmore said. “A lot of them have never been on a mission trip before.”
Gilmore was especially thankful for the role CUC students played in restoring the kitchen of homeowner Eve Bell. Their work on Bell’s kitchen cabinets and island will provide a place for the family “to come back together again” for meals and to regain “a sense of normal” after the hurricane.
Bell, who has lived in her home for nearly 13 years, said this was the first year it took in water. The water rose to three feet inside, and the family — unable to get a hotel room — slept in their car overnight. They returned the next day to begin remediating the damage.
“We got quotes [for the repairs]. … [One company] wanted $16,000 just to take out the wallboard and clean the floors,” Bell said. When she finally got a bid she could afford, the individual took the money but disappeared before completing the job.
Bell and her brother, Kerry, serve as legal guardians for a Bethlehem member named Dennis, who is a senior citizen with mental impairment. “The pastor came down from the Lutheran church up the street where Dennis goes to church. … They offered to come help, and, of course, I said yes. … We could never have done this on our own. It just means the world to have them here,” Bell said, her voice cracking with emotion. The Rev. Karl Glander, Dennis’ pastor at Bethlehem, said, “The entire church has taken Dennis as their own. My prayer is that the church can be a family for all in this household and that, even with how terrible the storm was, God will use it for further relationship building.”
The Rev. Greg Michael, pastor of Christus Victor Lutheran Church and Student Center in Athens, brought four University of Georgia students to Fort Myers. The group worked on two different houses.
“Probably just as beneficial [as the repair work] was [afterward] as my group stayed a while to play and talk with the kids, … parents and neighbor,” Michael said. “It was good for us to listen to their frustrations and hopes, to commiserate with them in the face of a broken world, and to share the … love that Jesus has shown to us. … I am confident that Christ was present … in our efforts.”
The Rev. Edward Grant, a retired LCMS pastor who has been involved with LERT since 2016, said that he was thankful to work with the students in his group.
“The students did a great job painting the entire house, installing door and base trim, washing windows, building a wall, mudding and assisting me with the installation of kitchen cabinets and countertops,” Grant said. “I was genuinely inspired by their willingness to serve, by the great attitude I witnessed, and by the volume of work they accomplished.
“The homeowner, an Air Force veteran, was in tears on more than one occasion … as she witnessed the transformation of her home. She had not been to worship in decades, but I overheard her asking [another volunteer] what women wear to worship — she didn’t have any dresses and wondered if it was necessary to wear one.”
The Rev. Michael Meyer, director of disaster training for the Synod, said the idea to combine LERT training with service goes back many months.
“After Hurricane Ian hit at the end of September,” Meyer said, “we started connecting with each of the Concordias and the seminaries to determine the interest levels of students engaging in hands-on mercy work during their spring breaks. The interest was there, from both students and leaders at each university, and we made the commitment in early November to make these ‘mercy expeditions’ a reality. It’s been a lot of work coordinating travel, lodging, background checks and the work on the ground with our local team leaders in the Florida-Georgia District, but in the end, we were able to accommodate 52 students over the course of three weeks.
“In addition to providing much needed help … these students will take these experiences with them into their various vocations once they graduate. These are future pastors and teachers, social workers and nurses, engineers and computer programmers. We pray that this experience will nourish the desire to continue that love for the neighbor throughout their entire lives — particularly in time of disaster. While this is our first year to do this, it is one that we intend to repeat and improve upon next year and beyond.”
Posted March 30, 2023