Shelter from the Storm
First UMC Opelika offers Lynn Haven UMC Youth Group respite from hurricane recovery
(Kari Barlow for AWFUMC) - About two weeks after Hurricane Michael devastated Panama City and much of the surrounding area, Lynn Haven UMC Student Minister Neil McGee knew his youth group desperately needed a change of scenery.
“Some of them hadn’t left for the storm, and they were traumatized,” he said. “Everywhere you go it’s nothing but total destruction. It takes its toll.”
So McGee reached out to First UMC Opelika—where his wife Mimi grew up and he used to volunteer—about hosting the kids for a respite weekend. He envisioned a few low-key, relaxing days by the lake with no big plans. What he got was an overwhelming display of Christian love in action.
“They just loved on our kids like crazy,” he said. “It was so good for the students to see!”
After the clergy at First UMC Opelika agreed to host Lynn Haven, they set out to make it an unforgettable experience for the storm-weary youth. Teresa Vigueras, associate director of music ministries, and Rick Lane, associate pastor of youth ministries, contacted local businesses to secure donations of meals, event tickets and many other items.
“It is truly amazing to see what God can do when individuals faithfully respond to the nudging of the Holy Spirit,” Associate Pastor Patrick Hitchman-Craig said.
On Sunday Oct. 28, the Lynn Haven group—about 42 kids including a few chaperones—arrived toward the end of First UMC Opelika’s 11 a.m. service. Before the benediction, Senior Pastor Robin Wilson invited the group forward and offered prayers on their behalf. Afterward, they enjoyed pizza in the youth building and then attended an Auburn University volleyball game free of charge.
“After the game, they joined our youth for their annual youth cookout,” Hitchman-Craig said. “The two youth ministries played games together, enjoyed a great meal and quickly made friends.”
On Monday the kids toured downtown Auburn, relaxed and hung out and were treated to catered meals throughout the day. That night they attended the Auburn Ignite worship event, which featured Sadie Robertson—of “Duck Dynasty” fame—as the guest speaker.
As the group prepared to return home Tuesday morning, Wilson and Craig and other church staff spent time talking with and encouraging the kids and quietly presented McGee with a gift of $100 for each family represented.
“It was amazing. The kids were blown away,” McGee said. “It was quite an act of selflessness.”
That compassion was a powerful reminder of God’s goodness at a time when all of his youth were struggling.
“Their houses have tarps on them,” McGee said. “Some of them have lost their bedrooms. That’s hard to deal with when you’re a kid. It’s hard to deal with when you’re an adult!”
The visit also blessed members of First UMC Opelika, who have raised more than $18,000 toward Hurricane Michael relief and packed countless flood buckets and hygiene kits. They are also planning to send a response team to the Florida Panhandle in early December.
“I don’t know what the future holds for these youth, their families, or for Lynn Haven UMC,” Hitchman-Craig said. “But I know that they left Opelika encouraged and filled with hope. They know that the people called Methodist in Opelika are supporting them and praying for them. But best of all, they know that God is with them.”
That message is the one McGee is consistently sharing with his youth.
“We’re just kind of challenging them and saying, ‘This is the new normal. What are we going to do with it?’” he said. “I tell them I don’t know why this happened, but God can cause something good to come from it.”