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Making God smile:

Overcoming denominational barriers through Crisis Response

Help was coming, just not from where Reverend Bill McCutchen of Hilton Head Presbyterian (PCA), thought it would. McCutchen, who pastors his church on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, didn’t even know the full extent of Hurricane Matthew’s fury when he was first contacted by the ReachGlobal crisis response team of the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA). Yet the confusion of who was offering help soon gave way to one of the greatest examples of the larger church in action.

Matthew hit Hilton Head Island as a category two storm and caused significant damage to approximately 400 of the 3,700 total damaged buildings, according to city reports. In many instances, the damage included trees knocked onto buildings, roofs damaged by the strong winds, and flooding. Nelson Fuentes, one of the first volunteers to respond, said their team saw “trailer homes with no roofs, trailer homes with trees on them, cars with trees on them, trees blocking roads, homes half surrounded by a new lake of floodwater, mold already exploding behind the walls – homes with that distinct smell of rotten walls [and] carpets squishing underfoot.”

Thankfully, McCutchen’s church was undamaged by the storm. Several trees on the property were snapped and brought down, but none of them fell on the church. The dozen or so trees fell away from the church building, a miracle in McCutchen’s estimation. This miracle provided a base of operations for recovery efforts once the storm cleared out. However, before recovery could begin, several challenges would have to be overcome.

Economic challenges
The first economic challenge was the cultural makeup of the island. Because Hilton Head is largely a resort and retirement community, many people, especially in the southeastern U.S., assume the residents of the island are financially well off. When disaster strikes, the belief is that the island’s residents can recover without outside assistance because of good insurance, retirement plans and personal money.

This isn’t the case at all, according to McCutchen. “People don’t realize the extreme poverty on [the island],” said McCutchen. “This island is filled with poverty and human need.” While all ethnicities dealt with the economic challenge at some level, the native Gullah (see sidebar) and Hispanic communities experienced it on a much larger scale. It was these communities that Hilton Head Presbyterian hoped to support.

The second economic challenge facing Reverend McCutchen and his congregation was the lack of resources available from the church’s parent denomination – the PCA – through the Mission to North America (MNA). The MNA was stretched thin due to other emergency responses and couldn’t send nearly enough supplies and resources to support the recovery effort. This is the exact point that Christ’s church at large stepped in to fill the gap.

The Kingdom at work
Mark Lewis, director for the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) ReachGlobal Crisis Response, arrived on Tuesday, October 11, just three days after the hurricane hit and before most recovery efforts started. 

Among those arriving with Lewis were Nelson and Anastasia Fuentes, who were raising funds to be long-term missionaries to Belgium. Once Hurricane Matthew hit, however, they detoured to the Southeastern U.S. to help. Nelson Fuentes’ work with ReachGlobal will be crisis response in Europe, so Matthew’s appearance on Hilton Head provided the Fuentes family a sneak peak at the damage a major catastrophe can cause as well as the experience of church-wide recovery effort.

Also arriving was Rob Passer, who, along with his wife Jackie, had recently closed a Hurricane Sandy relief station in New York. Passer was able to apply his extensive hurricane recovery experience by coordinating volunteer groups while Jackie, who joined the team a few weeks later, focused on meeting families and assessing needs.

Once Lewis left to continue recovery efforts in Haiti on October 12 and people such as the Fuentes and Passer families took over the EFCA work, the requests for help came pouring in. In all, the church received over 300 requests for assistance, ranging from cutting trees to working with heavy machinery. Most of the EFCA Crisis Response team volunteers expected to depart Hilton Head Island by the end of November, but not before clearing as many of the over 300 requests as possible.

Hilton Head Presbyterian and the EFCA ReachGlobal team also assisted the community by providing meals, which especially benefited those whose homes were significantly damaged. Volunteers served thousands of hot meals, using the church’s kitchen, while the manual labor continued. Some of the meals were delivered to homes for those unable to get to the church. 

Far from causing conflict, the addition of the EFCA crisis response team to Hilton Head Presbyterian has been a boon to the church at large. Working with Hilton Head Presbyterian “breaks old denominational barriers and creates a kingdom worldview,” Nelson Fuentes says. “I think we are making God smile.”

Physical turns to spiritual
Yet the real work is just beginning. Helping people with the immediate needs is vital for their physical well-being, but also as a way to introduce people to the answer for their spiritual well-being. “I believe true success will be achieved in the weeks and months to come when we move from relief work into missional work,” said McCutchen.

That effort is already paying dividends as people see the volunteers in action. “We have seen people who have left the Church in the past come to our church now because they are witnessing the work of Christ in action,” McCutchen explains. “Our own people are invigorated and so thankful to the Lord for his severe mercy in giving us the opportunity and ability to do this.”

One Gullah native islander brought her entire family to Hilton Head PCA. She “wanted to be with Christians who obeyed the voice of the Lord, not just talked about what he had to say.”  


What is Gullah?

The Gullah culture, also called geechee, comes from the descendants of African slaves brought predominantly from the African west coast. As a culture, Gullah includes its own form of music, food, farming and fishing traditions, and social interactions that are unique within North American society. The slaves arrived prior to the American Civil War, but the culture developed in the succeeding years due to the isolation of that region of America during the time of the Civil War and shortly after. The culture originally included an area from North Carolina to northern Florida, but the area has shrunk considerably to just parts of Georgia and South Carolina, where Hilton Head Island is located.
Today, the Gullah culture is made up of men and women who struggle with economic inequality and poor options to get ahead but remain strong in ethic and tradition. On Hilton Head Island, together with the Hispanic immigrant community, the Gullah people work predominantly in the tourism industry.

  • Dan Smith is a career U.S. Navy Sailor, a husband to Alicia, a father to Timothy, Samantha and Hannah, a graduate of the MA in Religion program at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, and a writer. He blogs at navychristian.org and tweets @navychristian.

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