While not directly impacted by Friday’s tornadoes, Presbyterians in two Mississippi presbyteries are aiding their neighbors in need

Churches in Leland and Greenville are housing first responders. The mayor of Leland is even lending his limo service to help the people of devastated Rolling Fork get supplies

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Friday night tornadoes did significant damage to rural communities in Mississippi. (Photo courtesy of State Farm attribution license)

LOUISVILLE — When tornadoes leveled neighboring Rolling Fork, Mississippi, last Friday evening, it didn’t take long for members and friends of Leland Presbyterian Church to spring into action to help neighbors who’d lost everything.

According to the Rev. Ann Kelly, pastor of the 130-member church about 40 minutes north of Rolling Fork, Leland members and friends showed up to staff a shelter for affected residents and one at the church to house first responders. They provided meals and accepted donations of toiletries and other essential items, toys, clothing, bedding and period products.

“Our mayor [Kenny Thomas] owns a limo service and a party bus,” Kelly said Wednesday. “He has made arrangements to go to Rolling Fork to pick up people so they can fill up on supplies.”

As the nearest PC(USA) church to Rolling Fork, one of the Mississippi communities most devasted by Friday’s EF-4 tornadoes, “We will work with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to figure out how best to meet the needs,” Kelly said. “We want to be able to do what we can.”

Several of the first responders came from the congregation itself. Farmers who attend the Leland church had just completed their planting season, and “they had the freedom to put tarps on houses and use their [heavy] equipment for cleanup,” Kelly said. “It’s so early it’s hard to know what our niche is, but we’re working to discern what that is.”

The Rev. Dr. Greg Goodwiller, the executive presbyter and stated clerk at St. Andrew Presbytery in northern Mississippi who’s also the executive for the Synod of Living Waters, said he welcomes a three-member PDA National Response Team, which is set to arrive Thursday. The team will work with St. Andrew Presbytery and the Presbytery of Mississippi, which covers the southern two-thirds of the state, “to help us get a better assessment,” Goodwiller said. Based in Oxford, Mississippi, Goodwiller said he plans to visit the Mississippi Delta Friday and will also stop at First Presbyterian Church in Amory, Mississippi, which sustained some storm damage, including a collapsed chimney.

“I think our people are pumped about being in a place to help, particularly our folks in Leland,” Goodwiller said. “They’re talking about converting a floor of their education building into a long-term site for groups to come and work and stay” as they respond to the communities that need help.

“I think Presbyterians will be quite engaged in recovery efforts,” Goodwiller said, and that includes First Presbyterian Church in Greenville, Mississippi, which is about 15 minutes west of Leland and is also being used as a staging area for responders. “We are working with PDA to get engaged.”

The Rev. Bob Madsen, regional presbyter for both the Presbytery of Mississippi and the Presbytery of South Alabama, said he’s grateful PDA “transcends denominational boundaries to minister to persons in need.”

“Having served a congregation in Gulf Shores, Alabama, that benefitted from the generosity of PDA [donors] following Hurricane Ivan in 2004, having had the opportunity to work through PDA following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and also in response to flooding in Nashville, Tennessee, I know firsthand what good work PDA does,” Madsen said.

The Rev. Jim Kirk, PDA’s Associate for Disaster Response in the U.S.A., said that while PC(USA) churches in the region were for the most part undamaged by the tornadoes, the immediate response “goes to show the connectional nature of the Church.”

“There is pretty significant engagement,” Kirk noted. “Both presbyteries want to do everything they can to bring resources to help those impacted … It’s a wonderful example of how, as a connected denomination, resources can be brought into impacted communities.”

“Through the generosity of Presbyterians around the denomination,” Kirk said, “PDA is able to partner with the presbyteries to ensure denominational support.”

Kirk said he’s anticipating initial assistance grant requests from both presbyteries. Those grants “go to meet the immediate unmet needs of survivors,” Kirk said, and can include rental assistance, food, fuel vouchers and gift cards for personal items.

‘Rural Mississippians are strong people’

While “it’s going to be a big task to recover, I think rural Mississippians are strong people,” said Kelly, the Leland pastor. “The amazing thing was how quickly people responded.” By Saturday, the day after the tornadoes struck, people from as far away as Memphis, Tennessee, and Madison, Mississippi, had journeyed to Leland to help.

“That’s what disasters do. They remind us God is working through us all the time,” Kelly said.

To help Presbyterian Disaster Assistance respond quickly to catastrophic events including the Mississippi tornadoes, make a gift by clicking here.

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