Since Hurricane Katrina, Sherry Lanier has been facilitating the denomination’s disaster relief efforts out of her home in Brandon, Mississippi. A former financial analyst for the NCR Corporation and current member of Redeemer Church in Jackson, she brings administration, leadership, and a deep passion for the gospel to the work of disaster response.
How did you get involved in disaster response in the first place?
I live in Brandon, Mississippi, and when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005, she came right up Highway 49 from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to Jackson and took a right turn right over our house. We never lost power at our house, so people were coming over to wash clothes, cook food, and take showers.
Meanwhile, Brandon Presbyterian was the closest PCA church to the Gulf Coast that had power. A meeting was called for all the pastors of the Mississippi Valley Presbytery. Before my husband went to the meeting, I asked him to find out how I could help.
At that point, there was just one couple trying to respond to 2,500 email requests for help. My strength is in administration and leadership, so I got on the phone with two CEO friends—one who worked for a regional phone company and the other for a computer company—and they collectively donated five phones and five laptops. From there, I helped set up the fellowship hall at Brandon as the “command center” for responding to Katrina. During that time, we set up a “Paul Revere” system where each day teams of two would go to 13 sites along the coast, from New Orleans to Mobile. They would assess the needs at each respective site, drive back to Brandon, load up the needed supplies, and deliver them the next day. And we did that for several weeks. While that was happening, I helped put together a database to handle future requests, and pulled together a volunteer administrative team who worked the next six months out of the church.
I did all of this as a volunteer, working 16 hours six days a week, and loving it!
How was MNA Disaster Response officially established as a ministry of the PCA?
Several years before Katrina, there were conversations about the need for a disaster response ministry in the PCA and small responses were undertaken to a few events. Just after Katrina hit, Arklie Hooten answered the call to be the director of MNA Disaster Response and God has blessed his vision to grow this ministry.
Additionally, the General Assembly saw the opportunity that disaster response provided and tasked us with responding to all events in the U.S. and Canada, putting together resources and training for volunteers from churches and presbyteries. Disaster response gave members of the PCA an opportunity to engage in mercy ministry in practical ways that didn’t require any formal theological training. There is a place for everybody to serve within the ministry of disaster response across the country.
Over the past 13 years, MNA Disaster Response has grown to a staff of 13 all across the country, as well as thousands of volunteers. We have regional specialists all along the Atlantic Seaboard and the Gulf Coast. We’re looking now to expand our staff to the West Coast and Pacific Northwest.
How many disasters to do you typically respond to each year?
The biggest and most frequent type of disaster in recent years has been flooding from hurricanes. We can pretty much say that we will be responding to three to four major catastrophic disaster events every year, at a minimum.
Okay, so a natural disaster hits. What do you do first?
We come alongside local churches and help with assessments after a disaster event. Although we don’t only help those in the PCA, we only partner with PCA entities to reach the greater community. After making an assessment, we send supplies and volunteers. Last year, after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, we were able to send mobile bunkhouses and mobile showers to help lodge the high numbers of volunteers.
In our warehouse, we store prepositioned supplies—generators, food buckets, clean-up tools—for whatever disaster we face. These are ready to go immediately upon request.
What do churches or presbyteries need to know about Disaster Response that they might not?
They need to know that we exist. There are a lot of people who don’t know that there is a disaster response arm of the PCA. Second, they need to know that we want to serve as their extra hands and feet that come alongside them in reaching their community with mercy ministry. We are just an extension of the local church. They also need to know that we can provide training in advance of—not if they have a disaster—but when they have a disaster.
How have the relief efforts opened doors for the gospel?
God uses disasters to either blow away, wash away, or burn away manmade barriers to the gospel where people have isolated and insulated themselves. Responding to disasters is our entrée to bringing the gospel to a lost and hurting world. You’ve got that vulnerable soul standing there in need of help, and we are able to enter in and bring the relief they need, both pragmatically and spiritually.
Both showing and telling the love of Christ—disaster response does that. So, when someone with a disaster-affected home asks a volunteer “Why are you here?” the volunteer is able to say, “I am here because my life was affected by the disaster of sin and Jesus came on a rescue mission and made all things new. Because He did this for me, I’m standing here doing this for you.”
That is the reason I do this. I love what I do because of the opportunities for the gospel, for kingdom expansion. And not only that, but kingdom encouragement. It’s not only the lost who are impacted by disaster, it’s those who are walking in Christ who are affected by disaster too.
I’ve had many conversations with believers who have been impacted catastrophically by disaster events, , and their response afterward has been one of gratitude because they have realized on the backside of that how much simpler life can be. That all those things they thought they had to have or needed, they didn’t. An understanding of the simple life opened up opportunities to use their resources to bless others in need, rather than spending on themselves only.
You’ve seen unlikely friendships come out of disasters. Tell about one of those.
After the flood came through Baton Rouge in 2015, there were two neighbors. One guy, a retired African-American NFL player, was the next door neighbor to an elderly Caucasian lady for many years. They would just nod at each other politely as they would see the other coming and going, but never engaged in conversation. After the flood, we sent volunteers down, and this former football player wanted to participate in helping. He walked over with some of the volunteers to help his neighbor muck out her house. And she, in tears, said, “I can’t believe it took a flood for me to have you in my home.”
MNA Disaster Response is still looking for volunteers to help with its relief efforts in Puerto Rico. Visit www.pcamna.org/disaster-response to learn more. As well, donations of food buckets, hygiene kits, and Sheds of Hope kits are always needed for its warehouse. Go to www.mnawarehouse.com to donate.