Growing in service

Lutheran-Episcopal ministry leads disaster response efforts in Mississippi
January 1, 2006

Just one year ago in Jackson, Miss., a nonprofit organization was reincarnated from successful Lutheran and Episcopal servant-ministry initiatives. Nine months later, Lutheran Episcopal Services in Mississippi exploded into service as one of the state’s leading disaster-response agencies.

Two days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, Bishop Duncan Gray III of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi appointed LESM’s executive director the diocesan coordinator for disaster response. Ninety days later, the organization was operating nine relief centers, employed more than 20 people, had established a statewide evacuee-resettlement program and had outgrown its temporary office space.

“Any way that we can impact the lives of people in a positive way, expressing our faith in the care that we give, is a positive for the Christian church at large, and service is a strong witness to those around us and to the Christ that we affirm and share,” said Kurtis Schultz, president of the LCMS Southern District. “Any time that Christians can work together in the service of people, it gives extremely positive expression of the Christian faith.”

LESM brought together an established Lutheran Service Ministry Organization and the servant-ministry efforts of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi. Its roots date back 20 years, when conversations took place around ideas for a dedicated organization for social ministries in Mississippi. Although other related projects gained momentum, the idea of an Episcopal servant-ministry organization kept simmering in the back of the Rev. Carol Stewart’s mind.

The discussions surrounding “Called to Common Mission” during General Convention in 2000 propelled Stewart, Lutheran pastor Robert Blanton, and Episcopal priest Horace Choate, and deacon Frank Spencer and others to form a Lutheran-Episcopal Task Force. Soon, ideas began boiling over.

“None of us could have foreseen this wonderful event and partnership that we now have with the Episcopal Church,” said the ELCA Southeastern Synod bishop, Ronald Warren. “I am just thrilled that this is the first SMO formed through our full communion relationship and look forward to working with all our partners across Mississippi in areas of social ministry and disaster response.”

Before Hurricane Katrina, the efforts of the Lutheran-Episcopal Task force developed into well-respected projects addressing some of the needs of Mississippi’s most vulnerable citizens. Since the hurricane, LESM and its relief main centers have served nearly 100,000 coast residents and sheltered more than 6,000 volunteers. These centers have provided walk-in medical clinics, supply “stores” and pastoral care. Seven other area Episcopal and Lutheran churches offer smaller relief centers.

LESM plans to continue its disaster relief operations well into 2006. As the work on the coast moves from recovery to rebuilding, existing housing sites will be expanded to accommodate the hundreds of volunteers assisting daily with debris removal and construction. The organization’s office also is administering an evacuee-resettlement program and has accepted applications for emergency-relief funds for both individuals and churches affected by the storm.