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Nobody saw it coming until it happened.
Having met together as a community of faith for glorious Christmas Eve services at Nameoki United Methodist Church in Granite City Illinois, and a surprise wedding – my own – we woke up to grey skies on Christmas Day. Substantial rain was on its way according to the weather service, but there were no warnings or flood advice issued.
Granite City is a part of the St. Louis metropolitan area. St. Louis is a divided city itself, sprawling across two states – Missouri and Illinois – separated by the mighty Mississippi River which begins in Lake Itasco in Minnesota, and winds its way through farmlands and deltas; past the Gateway Arch in St. Louis – just a few miles from the Nameoki United Methodist Church manse; through the blues of Memphis; and finally emptying into the gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans, Louisiana.
When you live a few miles south of the meeting place of the two largest rivers in North America – the Missouri River (measuring at 2341 miles), and the Mississippi River (measuring at 2320 miles), you can expect a little flooding from time to time. However rarely is that flooding serious. Usually, both rivers are contained by well designed levees designed to keep rising floodwaters away from metropolitan areas. On December 25th and into December 26th, the heavens opened. Over just a few days post-Christmas, over 10 inches (25cm) of rain fell on Granite City. And when you get that much rain, combined with the inches of rain that falls upstream from your position, you get flooding.
The last time Granite City flooded was 1993. After that flood, arrangements were made by the Red Cross to use Nameoki United Methodist Church as a shelter for displaced residents should it ever happen again. But it hadn’t happened in over 22 years, so most had forgotten that arrangement was in place. When the waters in the community flowed down streets, filled basements, and forced the evacuation of hundreds of people from their homes, the Red Cross came knocking. We may have forgotten the agreement – but they hadn’t. Over the next week and a half, Nameoki United Methodist Church became the largest single shelter for displaced persons in the St. Louis metropolitan area – covering 15 counties and 2.8 million residents.
God was preparing Nameoki United Methodist Church even before it started to rain. For much of 2015, most of my preaching had been centered around Jesus’ proclamation at the house of Zacchaeus; ‘the Human One came to seek and save the lost’. (Luke 19:10, CEB). On Christmas Eve, I spoke specifically about those who had been invited to witness the incarnation of Jesus in human form; Joseph and Mary – soon to be undocumented immigrants on the run from Herod in a foreign land; the poor and smelly shepherds, low on the totem pole of society; and the pagan priests from the east – often called the ‘wise ones’. There to witness to the birth and early childhood of Christ were the refugee, the riff-raff, and the ‘really weird’.
Hours later, Nameoki United Methodist Church was opening its doors to the same. Refugees fleeing a watery persecution; those whom society – and the church – thought to be riff-raff; and even the really weird – and I mean really really weird.
The Granite City and surrounding communities of St. Louis and beyond gave generously. Food, clothing, showers, toiletry supplies, bedding. The people of Nameoki United Methodist Church, together with the Red Cross, rose up to the challenge of staffing a 24 hour a day emergency shelter – coordinating not just a warm and dry place to sleep, but medical care, meals, school transport for children, the delivery of United Methodist Committee on Relief Flood Buckets (full of cleaning supplies, trash bags and rubber gloves), a listening ear and a safe environment.
Perhaps the most illuminating conversation of all happened between the church pianist and a muslim refugee – who asked the Nameoki UMC shelter volunteer if she felt threatened by the presence of a muslim in a Christian church? Without a beat, the response was one of gracious welcome and acceptance. Just like at the table of Christ, there was a blanket welcome to all seeking shelter in this particular ‘house of God’. The muslim woman later remarked that she had never seen a Christian church reach out in such a profound way to a community before, expecting nothing in return.
Were there a few more in the pews post flood? One or two yes. However, the growth experienced at Nameoki United Methodist Church after Christmas was not necessarily of the behinds on seats variety, but rather the exponential growth of heart size in the lives of the congregation. A realization that Jesus had called even them, here in the midwest of the USA, to truly be the arms, feet and voices of the gospel. Suddenly, the idea of mission was no longer abstract, it was actual. A recognition and comprehension that in the midst of a wet disaster, Jesus + nothing = everything. And everything = hope.
Fourteen people died in the flooding. Many more were seriously injured and hospitalized. Hundreds of people were displaced and are still cleaning up. Others have lost their homes entirely. Yet despite it all, Jesus lives here and Jesus is still building his church.
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