After wreaking havoc throughout the Caribbean, Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys Sept. 10. Later that day, the massive weather system made a second landfall at Marco Island, continuing to cut a swath of destruction throughout much of the state.

With active Development Fund loans valued at $125.7 million and serving 177 congregations, the Florida United Methodist Foundation had a huge amount of collateral exposed in the storm.

As of Oct. 6, the Florida Conference reported receiving 229 Irma-related damage claims from Florida United Methodist churches.

“The claims cover varying degrees of severity,” said LaNita Battles, director of the conference’s Ministry Protection office. “On a very preliminary basis, we estimate the insurable loss at between $8 million and $11 million, before application of the conference self-insured retention ($250,000) and the individual church deductibles.”

A different kind of response

Almost immediately after the storm hit, the Rev. Mark Becker, the foundation’s president, began pursuing creative avenues to help churches and communities recover, while working to protect the foundation’s investment in church property.

“I called David McCaskill at the Texas Methodist Foundation,” Becker said. “I asked, ‘What are you doing in response to Harvey? We don’t have the resources you have in Texas, but what can we do?’ ”

From that conversation and with approval from the foundation’s board, Becker sent a letter Sept. 21 to all churches with loans offering them the option of interest-only payments through the end of the year.

The relief effort effectively frees up about 50 percent of a church’s monthly mortgage payment to make repairs, meet deductibles — which total a hefty 5 percent of a structure’s value  — and assist other congregations in their neighborhoods needing help with storm-related repairs. The principal is not waived, simply shifted to the back end of the loan.

The steeple from Alva United Methodist Church near Fort Myers was ripped off by Hurricane Irma Sept. 10. (FLUMC photo)

“The economic piece is just part of this,” Becker said. “You can change lives without a whole lot of money and time. It’s about demonstrating ‘I’m with you, I care about you.’ ”

By Oct. 6, 10 percent of loan holders had accepted the interest-only option, said Margaret Cox, the foundation’s treasurer. “ The churches that have responded have been happy about the program being offered,” she said.

For Becker, it’s an opportunity to reinforce the core of Christian witness. “Grace starts with simple, humble gestures,” he said. “Some people get their hands dirty and roll their sleeves up. Others may not be able to do that. But there’s always a way to get engaged.”

Asked about the potential impact on the foundation’s mission if every affected congregation took the offer, Becker says it would be minimal since interest payments fund operations and pay dividends.

“Investors would not be at risk,” he said. “The only impact would be on the availability of cash to loan.”

The immediate need, Becker said, is flexibility during a time of tragedy and disaster.

“Christ tells us in extraordinary times we have to think outside the box,” he said. “I feel strongly about that. I believe the board feels this way, as well.”

Beyond Florida, the crisis in Puerto Rico looms large. Becker is looking at ways the foundation can help support relief efforts there and in other parts of the Caribbean.

“One of the key distinctive features of Methodism is connectedness,” Becker said. “The foundation is a strong part of this connection. It’s an important part of who we are. From reports I have seen, even in the mist of tragedy, you can see the hands of God at work. People band together, they come to each other’s assistance asking nothing and expecting nothing in return.”

* Maul is freelance writer based in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

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