Written by Rev. Daniel Wilcox of Christ First UMC.
“Who is my neighbor?”
When Jesus is asked this question, he replies in a way that challenges the cultural, ethnic, and religious sensibilities of his listeners. We call the story “The Good Samaritan,” emphasizing the role of the one who helped the man who had been beaten and abused. Jesus ended the story as he asked, “which of these three do you think was a neighbor?” The response? “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus’ final response is, “Go and do likewise.”
This parable, told in Luke 10, should challenge every congregation to ask who in the neighborhood needs mercy. This can be difficult in normal time, but after an earthquake, it becomes pretty clear: who are those in our neighborhood who are hurting? Who has experienced loss of their home? Who is feeling frightened during aftershocks? What are people struggling with as they work to clean up, repair, assess and rebuild?
After the Cook Inlet Earthquake of November 30, 2018, Christ First UMC in Wasilla started receiving calls: I need help with a place to stay. I don’t have any firewood, and my oil stove is damaged. Can I get help with food?
Many of our neighbors further out Knik-Goose Bay Road (KGB), and up through Settlers Bay, Big Lake, and even into Houston found themselves in remote places with little visibility and less services. While Anchorage, Chugiak, and even Wasilla were seen on the news and on the internet. Some of our more rural locations did not get as much attention.
We have a Pastor’s Discretionary Fund to help people in times of emergency. We help with rent, gas, food, or whatever people happen to need. With the increased calls after the earthquake, this fund was quickly getting depleted. We had the need, but not the resources to fill the need.
And then at the beginning of February, we got a phone call. The earthquake was just declared a federal disaster by FEMA, and they were looking for locations to set up Disaster Recovery Centers. Soon a couple of dozen FEMA employees descended on Christ First UMC to inspect it for safety, for space availability, to check cell reception, and the other qualifications of our space. While our financial resources helped a few of our neighbors, our greatest resource ended up being our building and our location.
Within a few days, FEMA had moved in – setting up the Disaster Recovery Center for Matanuska-Sustina Valley. They occupied our entire Fellowship Hall, and the largest classroom. We had to make some adjustments. While our normally ministry schedule did not change, we had to shift locations a few times. When the center was open on Sundays for the first few weeks, we enjoyed our regular greeters, plus the FEMA security guard, who welcomed everyone with a smile and helped several people on the ice.
But these minor adjustments were worth it! As the months have gone on, FEMA has had over seven hundred clients come through this center. These individuals, couples, or families have come to the church because they understood it as a location to get help. Neighbors from near the church, and throughout the Mat-Su Borough have been by to register for grants, loans, and other assistance offered by FEMA.
In the midst of hosting this service to the community, people have stopped and chatted. One woman mentioned how much she appreciated being able to access the services without having to drive too far. Another thanked the congregation for being willing to be there for our community. Others have expresses similar sentiment.
This has allowed the congregation to see our neighbors in a new way. Not just the folks driving by, but the friends right here with us. Shaken, but not going anywhere. Desiring mercy and looking for hope. As the focus of the earthquake recovery shifts from FEMA’s work to the long-term recovery and rebuild, the congregation will begin to ask the question again, “Who is My Neighbor?”