RETIREES: THE BACKBONE OF DISASTER RESPONSE
By Cheryl Wade
Retirement is not the end of busy work lives for the men and women who OPC Disaster Response sends around the country to repair damage dealt by hurricanes, tornados, and floods.
Church leaders say that these senior citizens make up the backbone of their volunteers. Here are laborers and planners, fixers and rebuilders, with years of prior experience and a love of God and neighbor.
Volunteering Out of Faithfulness
“Retirement is all about life stages,” said Jeff Davis, a sixty-one-year-old deacon from Cedar OPC in Jenison, Michigan. “You’ve reached a stage in your life where you have more time, and God has provided so well,” he said, “so you have a thankful heart and you volunteer out of faithfulness.”
Davis had worked in a short-line startup railroad, but when it sold, he could make more choices with how he spent his time. He had converted to Christianity as an adult. “Everything changed: my likes and dislikes—everything turned around,” he described. He married Gloria, a like-minded partner who also had a desire to serve others. A cardiology nurse, Gloria was born in Africa to missionary parents.
Jeff went to help in Houston in September 2017 and Gloria joined him a month or two later. While Jeff worked as a site coordinator, Gloria served as administrative assistant. She created spreadsheets to track the work and submitted receipts for reimbursement. Later, she said, she took on the role of hospitality coordinator for the Houston site. “Once volunteers were committed to coming, the volunteer coordinator would pass the information on to me,” Gloria said. A church served as the “one-stop” hospitality center, where volunteers had beds, blankets, sleeping bags, and a kitchen where they could cook. Sometimes, women of the church brought lunches for the workers and the neighbors, and there were potlucks where everybody had plenty of chow, she said. Gloria and Jeff worked together on separate parts of the disaster relief.
Kenley Leslie, who is seventy-three and lives in Staunton, Virginia, where he is a member of Staunton OPC, said he didn’t put “retirement” and his name in the same sentence. He left a career in computer repair and desktop services at fifty-eight so that he could become involved in volunteer work. He was young enough at the time to perform rough, exhausting work—ripping up wet floors, and getting the wet wood out.
“I’m not skilled in anything . . . I knew how to swing a hammer, and I knew about electricity,” Leslie said. “I was a good carpenter’s helper, plumber’s helper, or electrician’s helper. I never said I was good at painting; because I was not!”
John Gordon, sixty-seven, and a deacon at Calvary OPC in Middletown, Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg, displayed equal modesty by calling himself a jack of all trades and a master of none. When it came to disaster work, he said, “I had to learn to do something. I was available.” And time showed him what that “something” was.
Gordon is retired from public school teaching. He has also worked in group homes for people with disabilities and has volunteered with Joni and Friends, an organization that offers summer camps for families of children with disabilities.
His first job with OPC Disaster Response took him to Maryland, where a creek had backed up and become “a raging torrent.” The brick home of a member of Grace and Peace Presbyterian in California, Maryland, who lived with his aged mother, was flooded, and they needed quick help. The house was not in a floodplain, so they had no flood insurance.
“The whole first floor flooded about a foot high,” Gordon said. Much of the flooring and wall board had to be removed.
“The Lord knew exactly what was going on there (in Maryland) and who he wanted there,” Gordon added. He realized that he could encourage homeowners—and that encouragement, too, was part of the OPC’s work.
The flood had occurred just two weeks after the church had installed its only two deacons. Gordon told them the work would be “a trial by fire.”
Fellow OPC volunteer Jim Flanagan, member of Covenant Presbyterian in New Bern, North Carolina, drove six hours to the site and gave valuable, expert advice to the disaster team, Gordon said. Flanagan also taught him to use a broom properly: “You don’t push past your foot or you’re sweeping stuff back into the air,” he said.
Flanagan, sixty-five, had a cleaning business specializing in disaster restoration. He left that work because of a heart condition, but that didn’t keep him from using his voice and his experience. “It made me more empathic for people,” he said. “You get into people’s personal spaces and you end up going through one of the worst things they’ve ever had to experience.”
When Hurricane Florence struck in 2018, he worked on a site near his home, encouraging church members and coordinating the work. At this post, he could describe the big picture when it came to repairing people’s severely damaged homes. He worked to preserve valuables such as pictures and documents. “I could speak with authority about situations, reassure people of what to expect or do next,” he said.
While volunteering, he was able to “quit” working and focus on relationships, not just management. Compassion pushed him forward. “When you get to the core of what somebody is, and you talk, you build relationships” and see the “harmony” between yourself and another person, he said.
Even within retirement, there are stages of life and stages of work. Leslie said he can’t keep up with the very physical work anymore—he doesn’t have the stamina. He said he hopes younger guys will step up for the work. But there’s a new tug for him: refugee work.
“I have talked to people in three different organizations about refugee work since 9:00 this morning,” Leslie stated in a recent email. A year ago, his wife, Sarah, started a prayer time for the persecuted church. It morphed to include refugees. Recently, the couple learned about Afghan refugees who were being housed eight miles away in a Super 8 motel.
All five volunteers said Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of their work and of their lives. “If our security is in Christ, we don’t have to solve everybody’s problems,” Leslie said. “This was the work of Christ . . . and we worked with Christ.”
“He’s the reason for life; he’s the reason for living,” Gloria Davis added. “Without Jesus in your life, what meaning is there; what joy is there?”
To learn more about OPC Disaster Response, go to their website: OPCDisasterResponse.org.
The author is a member of Christ Covenant OPC in Midland, Michigan.
[This article was originally published in the June edition of New Horizons]