Eleven years ago, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans' 9th Ward. Hard. Levees broke, sending a 20-foot surge of water over the area.
Hartzell United Methodist Church suffered major losses.
"The church sustained water damage from rising waters and from roof damage," recalled the Rev. Elenora Mackey Cushenberry, who served the church from 2008 to 2014. "All materials were destroyed. It was completely gutted."
With the help of Cokesbury Cares, a ministry of the United Methodist Publishing House, Hartzell saw hope. A church-assistance program, Cokesbury Cares provides resources for United Methodist congregations that experience disasters.
While Cushenberry could not remember everything Cokesbury sent to Hartzell, she said, "Philips Memorial, which I was serving at the same time in New Orleans, and St. Paul in Shreveport, Louisiana, were [also] recipients."
The donations made "a significant difference," she added. "We were able to replenish our supplies ... at a time when funds were significantly limited." A decade later, in 2015, Cokesbury donated imprinted pulpit Bibles for Hartzell's rededication.
Cushenberry considers Cokesbury Cares an important outreach.
"During crises, people look to the church for support," she said. "Having hymnals and Bibles and other material serves as tangible, visible evidence of God's presence, even in the midst of crisis.
"We were — and are — thankful. Being recipients of such care gives evidence that mission/ministry is our DNA in The United Methodist Church."
A short but rich history
Cokesbury Cares launched about 20 years ago, said Greg Davis, director of custom sales and new business for the Publishing House.
The original purpose was "to have a program set aside for United Methodist churches who had some sort of tragedy," he said. Cokesbury Cares would provide resources such as Bibles and hymnals as well as pews, chairs and other furnishings.
Rather than using a cookie-cutter approach, Davis said, "We try to tailor our response to meet each church's greatest needs — to figure out unique solutions. We walk with them instead of through a list."
Cokesbury's community resources consultant team — regional field representatives — often are the first to hear of a congregation in need. "They are the hands and feet of the work," Davis noted. Sometimes, churches contact Cokesbury Cares directly.
The number of churches assisted each year varies, he said, but Cokesbury Cares is poised to help as many qualifying congregations as possible.
While Katrina may be the most-remembered disaster to which Cokesbury Cares responded, it is not the only one.
In November 2014, a fire ripped through Southside United Methodist Church in Batesville, Arkansas, destroying the building and its contents.
"It was just devastating to all of us," said longtime member Joann Stewart. The cause of the fire remains undetermined.
Cokesbury helped Southside replenish supplies.
A month later, an arson fire seriously damaged Mason Chapel United Methodist Church in Dyersburg, Tennessee. A Cokesbury field representative immediately contacted Mason Chapel to ask what kinds of church school materials they were using and replaced them by the next Sunday.
Another Tennessee church — Ivy Bluff in Morrison — expressed thanks to Cokesbury Cares.
"Ivy Bluff United Methodist Church had been faithful in Christian service to the community for 114 years when the building was totally destroyed by fire," said the Rev. Danny Freeman, former pastor. "After the fire, we met in a school, and after a week or so, the Cokesbury Cares program supplied us with hymnals, Bibles, Sunday school curriculum ... and other items that helped us to get back on our feet and to some sense of normality.
"Cokesbury Cares was a great benefit and blessing to us."
Davis is proud of Cokesbury Cares.
"Our business is to help churches stay in ministry – to resource the church," he said. "It's our mission, and we do it in more than one way."
Barbara Dunlap-Berg is general church content editor at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, January-February 2016,