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Vacation with a purpose: Pastor and wife help out in hurricane-ravaged area

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WORTHINGTON -- Many couples head south this time of year, hoping to escape the worst of winter and spend a few weeks in a warmer climate.

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The Rev. Bob and Beth Schulze recently joined the throngs of snowbirds and flew south, but not just to bask in the sunshine. The Schulzes took a "vacation with a purpose" to help out at a church in Alabama that was affected by Hurricane Katrina.

"When this disaster happened, we had this desire to go and help out somehow," recounted Bob, who serves as pastor at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Worthington while his wife is a registered nurse. "As a pastor and a nurse, we thought there might be an opening for us to serve."

Initially, the Schulzes contemplated volunteering with the American Red Cross, but an opportunity presented itself sooner through the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

"The Missouri Synod is rather strong down there. It's the Southern District of the Missouri Synod," Bob explained. "What the synod did was to assign each district, as they were able, to individual churches that were affected by the hurricanes."

St. Matthew Lutheran is part of the Minnesota South District, which was assigned two congregations in Alabama -- Holy Cross Lutheran in Mobile and Redeemer Lutheran in Fair Hope -- as well as a church in Lake Worth, Fla., that was affected by Hurricane Wilma.

"We decided to go to one of the two congregations in Alabama, to go and be available at that church so the pastor and his wife could get some respite," Bob said.

The Schulzes originally planned to go in October, but a family situation delayed their trip. It was rescheduled for the week after Christmas, a time when they already had a week of vacation slated.

"We flew down to save time and became part of that congregation in a unique way," said Bob. "Holy Cross didn't have a lot of damage to the church -- some trees had fallen on the church and there was some roof damage, but that was pretty much taken care of."

Congregation members had sustained various degrees of loss in the storm; some houses had little damage while others had to be gutted. Bob and Beth became acquainted with one family, the McMillans, whose house was all but destroyed.

"This fellow was a firefighter, so when the storm was coming, the family went to the fire hall so they could be ready to respond," Bob explained. "The hurricane came and the floodwaters were rising, and they knew their houses had been impacted, but they stayed their course and helped everyone else before they went to see about the damage to their own place. Now, four months later, their house is gutted, and they think they're going to tear it down and rebuild."

During their week-long stay, the Schulzes had the opportunity to travel along the coast, viewing damage from the hurricane not only in Alabama but throughout Mississippi and Louisiana.

"One of the neatest things was we had the opportunity to follow-up at the churches where the Minnesota South District had sent a crisis response team," said Bob.

"It really personalized it, too," added Beth, "to see the individual churches, the families that were affected. ... A lot of the houses down there are gutted, with FEMA trailers set up alongside them."

"The damage is just so pervasive," Bob said. "To see it is just stunning."

As part of the relief effort in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, members of St. Matthew Lutheran Church made a substantial cash donation and a truckload of supplies was sent down from the area circuit of churches. During a service at Holy Cross Lutheran on New Year's Day, Bob personally delivered a check to that church's Sunday school superintendent, representing funds raised by the Sunday school students at the Worthington church.

But the Schulzes hope to energize local residents to do more.

"They told us they're going to be looking for help for another five years," said Beth.

"One thing we wanted to bring back was opportunities for people," said Bob. "The needs now are for people power."

When the Schulzes stopped in Slidell, La., they witnessed a disaster response site that has been set up at Lamb of God Lutheran Church. The area around the church has been set up as a work camp, complete with food tents, shower trucks and trailer hookups.

"It's set up so groups of volunteers, whether it's just a few people or a larger group, can come down there, and they can coordinate what the needs are in the surrounding community," explained Bob. "We were just blown away by the effort. It was hopeful and encouraging to see the response of all these people."

Between worship services on Sunday at St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Bob will present a short program about their trip.

"It's an opportunity to show them what it's like and how they can serve," he said. "I think we will have some people going down. It's going to be volunteers that are needed, more than what people might imagine. ... If people would have the confidence that they could be useful for a short period of time, I think we could get past some of that fear factor about going somewhere and serving."

Specifically, the Schulzes hope to recruit some volunteers to go down to Alabama and rebuild the McMillan home and further forge a relationship with the members of Holy Cross Lutheran.

And they envision returning to Alabama themselves at some point in the future.

"We just kind of look at our life as an adventure journey," reflected Beth. "Where can we be of use?"

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Beth Rickers
Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  
(507) 376-7327
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