Healing from Tragedy

This summer 14 Candler students are serving in ministry through Candler Advantage, a paid summer internship in conjunction with Candler’s Contextual Education Program.  Over the course of the summer many of these students will be sharing their experiences here on the blog.

On April 27 of this year I sat in the living room of my third story, Decatur apartment and wondered where I would go if a tornado hit. I am sure many can recall that day, and the events of the night are etched into my mind. While I was safe in Atlanta, I knew that my home church community of Apison, Tennessee, was being ravaged by the spring storms. I had no idea the extent of the damage until the pastor of Apison UMC began to post updates on congregation members. He wrote things like, I have heard from the Smith, Jones, and Thompson families; Gene and Roxie are still missing; the two homes in front of Mark are no longer there. This news feed ran through the evening. He sent me a message telling me to pray for the community and that it was hit badly by the storms. I did not know the extent of the damage. When I saw that Atlanta’s Fox 5 was sending a news truck to Ringgold, Georgia (Apison and Ringgold are neighbors separated by only a state line on the map), I knew that things must be bad.

During the following days I heard it described as a war zone. I saw pictures and everyone cried that the pictures do not accurately capture the magnitude of the devastation. My heart grieved for the church family that is sponsoring and praying for me during my seminary education. The emotions were crazy; I felt lonely, guilty, and angry for not being with the people I loved. Disasters are disasters when they hit cities, but when they hit home disasters have faces, disasters have breath, disasters have names, and disasters have feelings. Still it is hard to describe how I actually felt while I watched my church family dig through trauma.

The only thing that gave me solace was that I knew that as soon as the semester was out I would be traveling back home to work in a neighboring church. This summer I am interning through the Candler Advantage program at Ooltewah United Methodist Church, which is in a community neighboring Apison. Through my position at Ooltewah, I have been blessed to be part of the relief efforts that will continue for the foreseeable future in the Apison community. In the midst of this tragedy I have seen strangers become friends and neighbors become heroes. People from as far away as New York and California have come to Apison to give of their time, talent, and energy.

While I am not working at Apison UMC, I am very blessed to be a part of a recovery and healing in my home community. The stories of everyday miracles are endless, from a dad and son lifting an unmovable safe off a trapped family to a church whose annual budget is barely $100,000 distributing over $20,000 in aid within five weeks of the tornado. God is at work, and I am so amazed that I have been graced with the unexpected opportunity to see the face of grace. Each week I ride my bicycle through the community. During my first ride, I cried; Saturday I smiled the smile of foundations being poured and Sheetrock being hung.

When I applied for the Candler Advantage program I thought that I knew what my summer was going to look like. April 27th changed all of that, but because of support of Candler I am engaged in life altering and world shaking ministry. The grace of humanity that I am witnessing through this disaster is shaping my ministry and giving life to my theological education. This experience is recreating me into a new person. Thanks be to God.

-Will Conner

Will is a rising third year MDiv student at Candler and a member of the  Holston Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.


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