Vermont churches shuttle supplies to flooding victims via 'Freeway Relay'[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal churches in storm-battered Vermont have resurrected the spirit of the Pony Express to help victims of late August's historic flooding.
In what became an enduring legend of the American West, Pony Express riders relayed the U.S. mail via horsemen between Missouri and California for 19 months beginning in April 1860 until completion of the Pacific Telegraph rendered their service unnecessary.
In the Diocese of Vermont, congregations are relaying peanut butter, casseroles, space heaters and cleaning supplies via cars and trucks along the state's highways in what has been dubbed the "Freeway Relay."
It started with an e-mail the Rev. E. Angela Emerson, diocesan minister for stewardship development, received in her office at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in White River Junction soon after Hurricane Irene hit the state. St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Bennington runs a "freezer ministry," distributing frozen casseroles, and was out of food. Within hours, Emerson and St. Paul's parishioners were in the church's kitchen, "cooking up grub."
The next day, Emerson brought the casseroles with her on a scheduled trip to Zion Episcopal Church in Manchester Center, about 30 miles north of Bennington. St. Peter's sent people to receive the food and drive it back to Bennington. And the Freeway Relay was born.
"We decided that that was a really great method for getting our parishes in areas of the state that had not been damaged involved in flood-relief work," Emerson said. She began coordinating relays from church to church along Interstate 91, which runs south from the northeast corner of Vermont.
Meanwhile, Canon to the Ordinary Lynn Bates was distributing flood information from around the diocese. "We realized we had another opportunity on the western side between Interstate 89 coming from the northwest corner … and Route 7 down to Bennington."
Soon, "muck buckets" with cleaning supplies, diapers and other personal items began moving along the western highways.
Virtually every one of the diocese's 48 congregations has participated in some way, collecting, donating or ferrying food and supplies to where they're needed, Bates said. "All of this has shown me that we're a lot more connected than we ever thought and that we can be even more connected and continue to make a difference in people's lives."
They made a difference in the lives of pupils from Moretown Elementary School.
"We had sewage that backed up through our toilets, actually, and flooded our building with sewage mixed with flood water," recounted special-education teacher Sara Baker. "They did air testing and surface testing and said, ‘You cannot have kids in this building.' So we decided that we would take the kids off-site for four days to start school."
The students began the school year with four field trips, followed by four days of education outdoors under three large wedding tents before being allowed back into the school, where repairs continue, Baker said.
When students and staff visited the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, they dined on food prepared by Episcopalians along the Route 91 corridor. St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Newport packed 130 bags of snacks and brought them to St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in St. Johnsbury. There, members of the church's meditation group and other parishioners made 130 bag lunches; boxed the snacks, lunches and other supplies; and loaded them into an SUV and a station wagon, said the Rev. Jean MacDonald, St. Andrew's rector. Next morning, parishioners transported the food to St. Martin's in Fairlee, which added another set of meals and sent everything to St. Paul's in White River Junction, which delivered the food to the museum.
The Moretown school welcomed the meals.
"I'm Episcopalian, so it was especially heartwarming," said Baker, who attends Christ Episcopal Church in Montpelier. "It was kind of a double blessing, because it was my community that was stepping forward and helping us out. It was a nice witness, I think, that churches aren't just around to condemn and blame. They actually show up with food."
The "relay" aspect helps make this witness doable for churches on an ongoing basis, MacDonald said. "People are driving 30 minutes to an hour."
"I have to tell you, it was fun ministry," she said. "It was real physical work that was something that we knew could make a difference. … We are preparing for another trip down next week with the needs that are current now. The needs have changed from lunches to now every church is being asked to supply a small electric heater, among other things."
"The congregation has been incredibly generous with both their time and their financial resources," she said. "I had a check from a summer visitor who heard about what had happened and is back in Florida and said, ‘I want you to make sure that this helps someone in the flood area,' and it was a very generous check."
Emerson sees a clear connection between such generosity and stewardship.
"To me, it is all about the fact that we -- particularly those of us who have not been affected by this flood -- have been blessed with many, many resources: time, talent and treasure," she said. "What we need to do is practice generosity, and we need to extend a helping hand out to those people who need it, and they're all our neighbors. Stewardship is all about generosity."
At St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Brattleboro at the southern end of the I-91 relay, parishioner Sissy Loftin, a retired social worker with training in disaster and emergency planning, is helping distribute the fruits of some of that generosity.
In the church's first relay experience, St. Michael's members accepted a delivery of 95 jars of peanut butter for local food ministries at a park-and-ride in Springfield. During the next rendezvous, St. Michael's delivered 26 large buckets filed with cleaning supplies that were needed further north. Meanwhile, St. Michael's has been busy delivering donations locally to food banks and elsewhere and helping residents at a HUD senior housing complex affected by the flooding.
"All of the people who have been working are volunteers," Loftin said. "I think the people in the church feel so pleased that we're able to do it and blessed that we have the resources and the energy to reach out."
"One of the things that the church in Vermont has been doing and Bishop [Thomas] Ely has been talking to us about is ... trying to not just be inside the church building, but to go out in the ways that Jesus went out and be much more active the rest of the week," she said. "It feels good to help people. As much pain and grief as we're absorbing and watching, we're really witnessing how we can help each other."
Anyone wishing to help with the relay can contact Loftin at email@example.com or (802) 254-9509.