New England Conference Disaster Response & Mission Coordinator Barbara Burnside will retire on Dec. 31, 2020.
She started working with the Conference on disaster response and mission in 2012. Her husband, Bill, served as Conference Treasurer; he retired in August.
The Disaster Response & Mission Coordinator is responsible for resourcing, equipping, encouraging and training
teams, and helping teams of volunteers form and connect with mission or disaster response opportunities. This part-time position will not be filled immediately.
Rev. Erica Robinson-Johnson, Director of Connectional Ministries/Assistant to the Bishop, will handle some aspects of this work in the meantime. She said Burnside’s will be big shoes to fill.
“Barbara is one of the leading experts in the denomination on disaster response,” Rev. Robinson-Johnsonsaid. “She has trained ERTs and UMVIM coordinators for our conference and the Northeastern Jurisdiction. She has been a leader in NEJVIM; she currently serves as the NEJ UMVIM Board chair. Watching her in action after the gas explosions in September 2018 and now during the COVID-19 pandemic has been inspirational.”
We asked Burnside to take a look back at her work with the Conference and share some of her thoughts and insights about this vital ministry.
Tell us a little bit about how you first got involved in disaster relief work and how you came to New England.
I think it started with a couple of disasters in the town where I was living at the time in the New York Annual Conference. We had three, week-long power outages within a year. And during the second one, I just decided I'm not going to sit around in the dark … so I thought, you know, I'll go to my town and volunteer to help with disaster communications, which is how I started all this.
I got so intrigued by that aspect that I took training to be a community emergency response team member in my town.
For 18 years before that, Bill and I had been volunteer leaders and administrative council members helping to organize the church’s, Appalachia Service Project trip every year where we repaired homes for those who couldn't do it themselves or couldn't afford to do it, so I was kind of in that mode anyway.
When New England was hit by Hurricane Irene, a tornado, and a couple other disasters for which the Conference had received UMCOR grant assistance, but had no one to manage the grants or monitor their distribution — Burnside stepped in.
“That grew into a position of helping the conference better prepare for disasters,” Burnside said, by acting as a resource answering questions, connecting people to resources, and providing training. Burnside is an UMCOR(ERT & Connecting Neighbors)/UMVIM Trainer.
While there were many volunteer leaders around the Conference working on disaster response, they, “by their own admission,” Burnside said, could not devote the amount of time needed to handle everything that the position required.
“Barbara has prepared an emergency response plan for NEAC and improved our systems, so they now go above and beyond what they were when she started in this role,” Rev. Robinson-Johnson said. “I am especially grateful for her unstoppable devotion to responding in crises.”
Why does this ministry speak to you?
I think for a couple of reasons — first of all, having worked in Appalachia for so many years and seeing the need and then discovering the unique needs of disaster survivors just, pulled at my heart. I looked at this and I said, ‘you know, God has been leading me into this position step by step for a long time.’
And I also love training. I mean, it's a well-worn phrase, but I like helping people. But I like helping people in specific ways: training them to be better prepared, training them how to work with survivors so that we don't impose more hurt in the process and so that we don't provide things that they don't need. We ask them, ‘What do you need? How can we help?’ Not ‘How can we do this for you?’ but how can we help resource you and make it possible for you to shape your own recovery?
I think that's the crux of why I love doing this.
Lots of ways to volunteer
And I, you know, I love working with so many different churches, the different configurations of churches, the different types of volunteers. You don't have to go out and repair homes after a disaster to be in ministry in disaster response.
You can make telephone calls to survivors,
You can build health kits and cleaning buckets,
and you can speak to your church and encourage others to volunteer,
You can be the person that raises the funds …
There are so many roles in this process, and what I try to do is to help people see just because you don't feel comfortable going out and mucking out a home or putting a tarp on a roof, that
does not mean there is nothing that you are able to do.
What's the most serious or challenging disaster you’ve faced?
Probably the devastation that I saw after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, just because of the massiveness of the destruction.
One of the things that made it so clear to me that this was a disaster on so many levels was when I got to Texas and I saw that debris was piled twice as high as my van in the medians of the highways, because there were issues with how [to] dispose of this debris, which could have toxins in it or may need to be recycled … The systems are overwhelmed … That's part of the disaster.
There were the people whose homes were inundated and devastated. In both Florida and
the area of Texas where I worked, which was near Corpus Christi, just to look at the amount of damage, the number of homes, the number of businesses that were devastated. It just it shook me to my core.
As a volunteer, what keeps you from being overwhelmed by it?
Well, I guess my purpose — what I'm there to do, which is to bring hope by extending a helping hand, like Jesus encourages us to do and asked us to do. And also, you know, my faith, my faith that there are people that are there to help, and that just gives me so much hope and encouragement.
And just putting one foot in front of the other and using my training to bring some calm, some hope, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on.
There is something in the disaster response training that says a survivor has to tell their story multiple times to help process the grief and move through the grief and the different stages, and we’re there, in part, helping that process.
And to provide resources, because when you are survivor, you're in shock and you can't think straight, so you may not know how to proceed, so we give them options: Have you contacted your insurance company? Have you applied for FEMA? Things that I know because I have been trained to help within a situation that is so chaotic.
Is there a time that stands out for you when you saw clearly that you had made a difference?
One of the examples that always stands out for me is when I was the disaster volunteer coordinator in the New York [Conference] after Superstorm Sandy. I believe it was three years after the storm hit, and we discovered a woman on Staten Island who had not received help yet.
She was an older lady, in her mid-70s, I believe, and she had gone to her church and asked for help. Her church said, ‘we don't have anybody to help you.’ She had tried reaching out to other organizations, and they couldn't help her.
She was living in a house for three years with a basement filled with sewage. Her roof leaked; she didn't have heat on in the house; her toilet water froze in the wintertime. I mean, it was just a horrendous situation, and there were health professionals that we brought in to work with her who said if we hadn't discovered her, she could have been dead in months.
And I thought, how can this happen when there are people canvassing all over the place
and looking for people in need of help? And how could so many organizations have turned her away? It just floored me and made me cry.
And she was so appreciative when we came in. I watched the teams that were there with me, and they were being so careful to take things out of her basement and put them under a tent in the backyard — she was having trouble letting go of some of the stuff that was contaminated and ruined. We were very careful to say, ‘We'll just put this in a bag under the tent, we're not going to throw this away, and you deal with it when you're comfortable.’
Is there something else that you think people would be surprised to realize is part of this ministry?
I think that a lot of people don't realize the partnership aspect of this kind of ministry and this kind of responding. I'm a member of six state VOADs (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster). VOADS were started nationally to help organize the response efforts of all these groups to help us coordinate, collaborate, and communicate, so that we're not falling all over each other and we're not duplicating resources.
And a lot of people don't realize that when a disaster happens, even like COVID, the voluntary organizations collaborated to get resources where they needed to go.
For instance, up in Maine, there were a couple of Native American tribes that were in remote areas — and because things were in such demand: toilet paper, personal hygiene items like shampoo and soap and things like that — by the time the supply trucks got to their area, they didn't have much left.
Burnside said she learned about this situation through the Maine VOAD. Working with the Conference Council on Native American Ministries and the Katahdin District office, she was able to coordinate getting supplies from existing UMCOR hygiene kits, along with additional funding and supplies, to help meet the need.
There's just a lot of work and coordination that goes into making this stuff happen.
Jackie [Brannen, Katahdin DS] said [she’d] been trying to make a connection with these Native American Nations for a while, and this gave her a way to connect with them.
A lot of it, you know, feeds into a lot of other things that we may be trying to do as a conference. The heart of it is building relationships, and having these relationships helps to get things done and provide needed resources to meet unmet needs.
What can local churches do?
One of the things is to connect with their local agencies to find out how they can help locally.
Are there unmet needs — not in disaster times, but just on a routine basis — that are not being met in your own community that you can identify and that you have the resources to help provide [for]?
I used to hear Bill say all the time, and he's still right, ‘You know, we can do anything. We just can't do everything.’ And it's good for churches to remember that. They don't have to do everything, just do something really well – like finding an unmet need and not just doing what everybody else is doing.
Can you give an example?
The gas explosion [Lawrence, MA 2018] was a good example. There were a lot of people trying to go out and help those who needed help. And I have to credit the bishop, who was saying, you know, we have immigrant populations in these areas, especially in Lawrence, and I found out that they were not availing themselves of the resources because they were afraid of being deported or being harassed.
And so, they weren't getting any resources. They needed resources. And we found a group of
faith communities — some large, but a lot of small faith communities — that were trying to serve this group, and we partnered with them and we asked churches to be part of that.
Jesus talks to us about the least of these, and the last, and the lost, and that's kind of what you're looking for.
On encouraging volunteers
I'm concerned about the future of this ministry and so are a lot of my colleagues across the country. … many of our volunteers are aging out and I don't see enough younger people getting engaged in this ministry. And that worries me.
I would just encourage people, if want to dip your toes into this, that you make yourselves known and at least start the process of learning what this is all about, because there are so many facets to it. There's a lot to learn.
In the Connecting Neighbors training that UMCOR offers, I've seen some glimmers of hope there, because it helps individuals, churches and communities be better prepared to weather a disaster. And I have identified people through that training, so that's a good point of entry for people.
What’s next for you?
The Burnsides will be moving to Virginia to be closer to their two daughters and their families, and Barbara has already contacted her counterpart in the Virginia Annual Conference. “He’s excited to have another trainer in his Conference,” she said.
She’s also been in touch with Bishop Peter Weaver who lives in Virginia to help learn more about the churches in their new Conference.
Burnside said she’s using this time to help make sure the Conference remains prepared after she’s left the job.
My online files will be available, and I'm making a couple of notebooks, and, of course, we have a New England Conference Disaster Response Plan, which I developed with the input of many colleagues in the Conference, and that will guide people. And there is a resource that the Florida Conference developed, and I worked a little bit with them … on how to do long-term recovery. I'm hopefully leaving a blueprint that someone can use to at least get a running start.