Conference and Local Churches Respond to Gas Explosions in Merrimack Valley
By Marlene Gasdia-Cochrane
When a gas company failed to relocate a specific underground sensor from an abandoned pipe during construction work in Lawrence, it resulted in over pressured gas lines which caused explosions and fires throughout Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover. The Boston Globe reported that as a result of this incident, five homes exploded and 125 structures were damaged by fire. One person was killed when a collapsing chimney fell on him, and two dozen others were injured. The newspaper also reported that as of last week, 1,632 families and 5,656 individuals had sought company-financed housing at area hotels or in trailers because damage rendered their homes unlivable.
“When news of the Merrimack Valley gas explosions and fires was received, members of our Conference staff were immediately in touch with each other to determine next steps,” said the Rev. Don Remick, Transitional Interim Conference Minister. “Our Conference’s Disaster Resource and Response Team (DRRT) was included and consulted throughout these communications.”
Text messages were immediately sent to pastors within the affected area, followed by phone calls to check on them, their churches and their communities. Emails were sent out broadly to the whole Conference to give updates to all of our churches and provide ways that churches could be helpful.
General resources and information regarding short and long term recovery were provided to clergy and churches in the impact zone. The Conference gave updates to the National UCC Disaster Ministries and collaborated with them on resourcing. Included in the resourcing from National UCC Disaster Ministries was the award of a Solidarity Grant to one of our churches in the region that has a relationship (through the congregation and its youth ministry) with a local school system in Lawrence. The grant made it possible to provide grocery store gift cards for some of the more urgent needs.
Conference staff and DRRT members hosted a lunch with clergy from the impacted area as a time of check in, support and strategy. In addition, members of the Conference staff attended worship at several of the area churches to offer support to the pastors and the congregations.
How Our Local Churches Were Affected AND Helped Their Communities
Trinitarian Congregational Church in North Andover Takes Up Collection for Affected Member
It was a chaotic scene for the area around Trinitarian Congregational Church in North Andover, with first responders arriving everywhere and traffic jamming the streets. One of the parishioners, who lives next door to the church, managed to shut off all the gas to the church and parsonage, helping to ensure there would be no damage to the church buildings. The church was one of the first buildings to have the gas turned back on, so little harm was done.
“Some of our families have been affected while others have not,” said the Rev. Debra Adams, the new pastor at Trinitarian. “But one of our members lost everything.”
The member stayed one night in a shelter before he was able to get to his sister’s house where he stayed until he got back on his feet. He continued to attend worship throughout at Trinitarian is an important part of his life, and for two weeks, the congregation took a collection and raised enough money to get him back into an apartment with everything he needed.
“For me, it was difficult because it happened just over a week after I began at Trinitarian,” said Adams. "I didn't even know my parishioners yet and am still learning."
South Church in Andover Members Offer Their Homes and Advocate for the Community
South Church in Andover didn’t fare as well as Trinitarian. As of the writing of this article, they are still without gas to the church. Because of the incident, "Homecoming" Sunday would have to be delayed; but instead, they joined West Parish Church of Andover and, according to Rev. Alex Shea Will, Associate Pastor at South Church, they had “a wonderful combined service.” The church is hoping to have gas back shortly but they are planning to worship elsewhere if it gets colder in the coming weeks.
Their members have also been affected as currently 20 to 25 families are without gas. “Our members have been providing ongoing support to these families,” said Shea Will. “Folks in the church have been delivering meals, doing one another's laundry, and even opening their homes for sleeping and hot showers.”
In addition, since the gas event, all loose offerings collected by South Church on Sunday – which are usually donated to a mission partner – have been donated to the Essex County Community Foundation in its ongoing support of victims of this crisis.
“At the clergy luncheon, the Conference staff offered their time, prayers, and excellent questions as we began to unpack the impact of such a trauma on our community, our churches, and our own lives.,” said South Church Pastor the Rev. Dana Allen Walsh. “That meeting was the first time I recognized that as clergy, we have endured our own trauma while at the same time are in the role of helping others through this gas crisis. Personally, I am still without an oven, stovetop, and heat. Every day, my husband and I are thinking about how to keep my two young children (1 year old and 5 years old) warm and fed as we surpass the one month mark and look at three more weeks in the same situation. It's been exhausting. But I've also seen the presence of the Spirit in the deeper connections and care that is being forged through this difficult time.”
Allen Walsh joined a group of clergy from Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover, and met with the president of the gas company. The primary agenda was to advocate for energy efficient appliances in the nearly 10,000 households that need new equipment as a result of the gas incident. The group believed this was a key opportunity to provide quality water heaters, furnaces, and stoves with less environmental impact and lower cost per month for individual households. The group also strongly suggested that translators should be included on every gas company assessment team. Finally, the team wanted to reinforce that their communities have experienced trauma, so therapeutic resources need to be provided. They finished the conversation and let the company know they would follow up to check on the progress of these action items.
Allen Walsh is continuing to work as part of a smaller steering committee comprised of the local clergy who are actively advocating to politicians and the gas company so that the community’s voices are heard in support of the disenfranchised and care for the environment.
“Personally, I feel that faith organizations are well positioned to help communities heal and find hope, but they also need support from trained professionals,” wrote Allen Walsh on her Facebook page. “There is power when our faith communities join together in one voice to speak truth to power."
West Parish Church of Andover Appreciates the Presence of Conference Staff to Help Address the Trauma
The Rev. Katrina Wuensch of West Parish reported that none of their members were directly affected by the explosions – aside from many being very much traumatized by the chaos, fear for family members, the uncertainty, and sight of houses down the block on fire. For Wuensch and her congregation, it was about addressing the trauma, disruption and uncertainty - and being concerned for the folks in Lawrence who have fewer resources than many people in Andover.
“I do want to say that the Massachusetts Conference was phenomenal,” said Wuensch. “I hadn’t been through something this emotional since 9/11. I know it feels somewhat out of scale to compare the two events, but the sense of fear and chaos was similar to me. Associate Conference Minister Wendy Vander Hart and Don Remick were both in touch that evening, stayed in touch throughout the weekend, and even followed up with us weeks later. I did not foresee how emotionally exhausting this event would be for me – as I checked on parishioners, heard their stories, received their feelings, and adjusted church plans to the constantly changing situation. Don and Wendy being present and in touch, offering their support and counsel, was an absolute gift. And one that I could not have foreseen meaning so much.”
Remick went to West Parish the Sunday following the explosions, when South Church joined them for worship because they had no gas or electricity. “While he was in the pulpit for only about 30 seconds, his presence spoke volumes to all about the concern of the wider church,” said Wuensch. “Again, I simply cannot say enough about how present, calm, available and supportive the Conference staff was. And perhaps I am especially grateful because I did not expect it, or think I would need it!”
Youth and First Church in Ipswich Raised Money, Applied and Received Grant to Provide Food For Those Affected
The youth group at First Church in Ipswich, UCC did all they could to raise money to supply food for those in one South Lawrence school system after their church school discussions turned to news about the gas explosions.
The youth group had been studying how Jesus was a refugee in Egypt as Matthew’s Gospel describes it, and that steered the group into a discussion about refugees all over the world, which led to talks about their own neighbors who were deluged with fires and chimneys falling down. At first the youth group wanted to go with shovels, and help pick up the bricks from the fallen fireplace; but they heard what the community needed was groceries and focused their efforts on that instead.
“Our friend is the principal of the Gateway Community Day Charter School in Lawrence, where 126 kids are studying,” said Rev. Rebecca Pugh, pastor of the church. “And when the power outages and gas explosions erupted, the school children found themselves without food security.”
The youth of the church spoke to the congregation, filmed a presentation during their Sunday school, stood outside the local coffee shop, asked for money at their own five schools, and together applied for a solidarity grant to the UCC Disaster Ministries to raise money for the school children. The grant for $3,000 came through. In addition, the youth raised $780 as a result of their other efforts, plus received a $250 grant from the First Church Missions Committee.
On Sunday, the youth went to Market Basket, bought 126 gift certificates for groceries, added the $250 worth of gift certificates they had been given by the Missions Committee, and delivered the three laden envelopes to their friend the principal.
“The principal wrote to the group to let the church know that the families were so grateful, and that the best of it was that the families might never meet the youth group, which makes the work even more beautiful in the eyes of God,” said Pugh.
Phoenix Rising, UCC To Host Fundraiser for Affected Member and Disaster Fund
“We have just one family in our congregation who no longer has a place to live and is dealing with so many unknown variables,” said Pastor Donna Spencer Collins on the church Facebook page. “But there are many families in the area who are not able to go home or need to find a new place to live, so we are hosting a Blues Festival Disaster Relief Fundraiser on their behalf. We needed to do something. We are the church ambassadors of God through Jesus Christ.”
As a musician, Spencer Collins made many connections in the blues music community in the Merrimack Valley. That is how she met the couple (and later had the privilege of officiating their wedding) who has lost their home. To support them, a team from Phoenix Rising began planning the fundraiser with leaders of the Blues community. The event plans to have six bands performing, a silent auction, appetizers and cash bar. [You can get additional details on the church Facebook page.]
"We are all connected to God and each other,” said Spencer Collins. “Being moved with compassion to act for a stranger is allowing God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven - whether we realize the source or not."
As the situation continues to make the news and continues to unfold, the Conference will continue to stay in touch with local churches and through them to some of the short and long term relief efforts.
“As always, churches are in a unique position to provide a familiar and safe place for people who are seeking emotional, spiritual and practical support,” said Remick. “Churches are also in a unique position during times of disaster to work with local, state and national agencies and officials to ensure that no one falls through any gaps and that resourcing is coordinated equitably and thoroughly.”
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