Jim Morse: Be prepared to respond to disaster – and to do ministry

July 14, 2022
By Alan Wild
Nobody ever hopes that a natural disaster will hit – least of all Jim Morse, the Kentucky Annual Conference’s Disaster Response Coordinator. But when something does happen, it’s important not only to be prepared to respond, but to recognize it as an opportunity to serve as a Christian witness.

“There have been innumerable acts of kindness and ministry and neighbor helping neighbor wherever there has been damage, whether it’s the Dec. 11th tornadoes, the Jan. 1 tornadoes, or any of the 20-odd tornadoes we’ve had in Kentucky since then,” Morse said in a recent interview.

“One of the common things that I hear is that things aren’t going as quickly as we want them to go, and I understand that. There is a reason why they call it ‘long-term recovery,’ because it is just that. The understanding is it’s not going to be a quick recovery effort.”

He added, “There are a lot of local people working very hard through the Long Term Recovery Groups (or LTRGs) in the various counties who are doing amazing things.”

Morse has been the Conference’s point person since a swath of deadly storms struck western Kentucky on the night of Dec. 10, 2021. Disaster-response coordinators in the nine districts, pastors, and churches quickly mobilized to respond, primarily through LTRGs, in hard-hit counties. The Conference has also forged a close relationship with the Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference, which is where Mayfield – possibly the hardest-hit area Dec. 10 – is located.

When Morse talks with churches, whether in the disaster areas or elsewhere in the Conference, he encourages them to connect and engage with the local LTRG. They are the primary driving force for their communities’ recovery, Morse said. They understand the needs better than anyone from outside the community, working through disaster case management with the survivors. They know what their own resources are and what their community needs are.

“We have some churches that are tremendously involved. We have some churches that are peripherally involved – they are active but may or may not be working with the LTRG. And we have some churches that haven’t figured out how to be involved,” Morse said.

Those in the latter category might be a small church with few resources. Maybe the members can’t build houses, but they can provide counseling, ideas, communication, or life experience on managing certain aspects, Morse said. Plus, they know people who can help.

“Long-term recovery is all about identifying, leveraging and maximizing every community resources you can find,” he said. “I have yet to go to a Methodist church where there is not a wealth of knowledge and life experience on one topic or another that a LTRG might find useful to help their community.”

Given the time frame for recovery – likely three to four years – the Conference is in the process of hiring up to seven Disaster Case Managers in the hardest-hit areas to assist LTRGs. The positions are for one year – though they might be extended, assuming funding can be found – and pay $20 an hour, plus health benefits. Ideally, Morse said, people will be from the area because a high degree of trust will be required for them to do their jobs well.

Local churches could help by partnering with disaster case managers to introduce them to clients and help build that bridge, Morse said.

Madisonville First, in Hopkins County, where Dawson Springs was largely destroyed by an EF4 tornado during the Dec. 10 outbreak, actually hired Kim Gilliam as the church’s Disaster Relief Coordinator, a one-year position – something that Morse calls a fantastic example of a church and the Conference working with the local community.

Local church involvement is critical, he said: “During and after a disaster, some of the best discipling for Christ we can do is just be present and provide a Christian presence in the community by our actions.”

Morse also hopes that what we’ve learned and accomplished the past few months will result in more churches working to develop what their witness and ministry will be when a disaster hits. Among other things, it means making connections with first responders, and local groups and agencies – in other words, being proactive. Not nearly enough of our churches are where they should be, he said.

This does not mean they won’t do good ministry when disaster hits, he said, but when it’s over they will say, “It would have been a lot easier if we’d done some preplanning.”

The needs just from the tornado recovery will continue for the next three to four years. There will be continued opportunities for mission work of all different types, Morse said: “Western Kentucky is not foreign or exotic, but it is a great place to do ministry.”

  • Warren County (Bowling Green): “The recovery process in Bowling Green continues to progress steadily! We have an established and active Long Term Recovery Group, and we are making great progress in case management. The United Way office in Bowling Green is managing this aspect of our recovery. As of early July, it has opened 246 cases total and has closed around 60 cases. Currently, the financial and miscellaneous resources available continue to meet the needs we are identifying. We are thankful for the support and prayers of the entire Annual Conference, and we are especially thankful for the chance to work with leaders and servants around our community who remain invested in complete recovery of the Bowling Green-Warren County area!”
                                                                                                                                                                                             ---Rev. Caleb Wheat, St. James UMC, South Central District
  • Ohio County (Owensboro area): “Ohio County had 62 homes damaged or destroyed. Long-term recovery is in process: Six complete rebuilds are ongoing in the middle phases of construction with four more in the beginning phases. Multiple homes have been repaired allowing residents to return. Construction is slowed by labor needs – both skilled and unskilled labor. Especially needed are Kentucky-licensed electricians and plumbers.
“The Owensboro District has also been supporting relief and recovery efforts in Muhlenberg County, which had more than 210 homes damaged and more than 70 destroyed. Teams from various ministry organizations have been using Sacramento UMC to feed and house their volunteers. As of early July, Sacramento UMC has supported 9,585 volunteer man-hours contributed by more than 150 volunteers from at least 12 states. Most recently a group has been in the process of rebuilding a destroyed Baptist church. Finally, Sacramento UMC has also stored a significant amount of donated household items and food that are being given out as needed to survivors.”
                                                                                                                                                                                                               --Rev. Mike McLean, Sacramento UMC, Owensboro District 

  • To send a financial gift in care of the Kentucky Annual Conference: https://www.kyumc.org/disaster-relief-donations
  • To help Madisonville First UMC’s work in Dawson Springs: Donations can be mailed to First Methodist Church, 200 E. Center St., Madisonville, KY.42431
  • For information about bringing a volunteer work crew to a tornado-relief area: contact your local church or district Disaster Response Coordinator, or email Kim Gilliam (Madisonville First UMC) at gilliam1@twc.com.