End of an era: UM Relief Center closes its doors

By Jessica Connor

MOUNT PLEASANT — Plagued by more than $800,000 in debt with no end in sight, the United Methodist Relief Center has succumbed to the inevitable: closing its doors.

After 21 years of quality service to the vulnerable citizens of our rural communities, The United Methodist Relief Center is closing effective Aug. 15, 2011, due to the lack of donor support and filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the UMRC Board said in a statement to the Advocate last week.

Formed in 1989 to help the Hurricane Hugo-ravaged Lowcountry, the UMRC evolved over the years to repair, replace and rebuild homes for very low-income homeowners, ensuring that every individual has access to a warm, dry and safe home.

The ministry of the UMRC is one of the best things to happen to South Carolina, said Carroll Cash, acting executive director of the UMRC, noting that the center improved the housing of more than 4,000 people since its inception. (See Cash s reflections on the UMRC s closing, below.)

At the time of the closing announcement, the UMRC owed the S.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church more than $274,000, and the Council on Finance and Administration had been exploring whether to forgive the UMRC of its debt. At Annual Conference in June, the body formally clarified the relationship between the conference and the UMRC, voting that the organization would remain a separately incorporated entity.

Then, in the two months preceding its decision to close, the UMRC released a 60-day Business Plan (June 15-Aug. 15) that was posted on the conference website, That plan encouraged people and churches to donate to the organization while detailing that contributions would be used to pay down a balance owed to the Internal Revenue Service and the S.C. Department of Revenue; pay minimal salaries and overhead necessary to keep the UMRC functioning; and help complete the nine projects the UMRC was finishing.

Now however, with the announcement of the closing, work will move toward a new phase: bankruptcy proceedings.

Those who volunteered with UMRC in the past are calling the news heartbreaking.

The Rev. Brad Gray, pastor at Greene Street UMC, Columbia, did summer field education experiences in 2002 and 2003 while in seminary at Duke Divinity School. He called his time at the UMRC absolutely amazing, helping him learn about poverty and its cyclical nature, how people truly desire to live better, but simply cannot because of many things that are out of their control.

Starting out to meet a need created by a natural disaster, the relief center grew into something much larger than anyone could have ever imagined, Gray said. While their closing has been followed only in the last few months by many United Methodists across the state, having seen this organization up close and personally, I can assure everyone that the mistakes that were made were never malignant or intentionally deceitful. No one was stealing or trying to get rich. If anything, the relief center simply tried to do too much. At every turn, they saw a need and then tried to meet that need. Their motto, Building Homes for Today and Hope for Tomorrow, was one that they desperately tried to live into, even to their own detriment.

Tony Snyder said the UMRC supported his work at the Hugo Salkehatchie Camp, providing camp volunteers with skilled leadership and a place to stay and fellowship.

My experience would not have been the same without the United Methodist Relief Center, Snyder said.

Rebekah Phillips, a senior at Boston University studying anthropology and religion, said her 2009 summer internship at the UMRC through the S.C. Conference s Students in Mission program was an extremely significant and powerful experience for her. She said the opportunity UMRC gave her “ to see spirituality and faith in action firsthand “ steered her more firmly toward a more service-oriented direction in life.

There s such a need for this organization, she said. It s my hope that given time and energy, the relief center will somehow, one day, be able to continue its mission.

21 years of UMRC victories

By Carroll Cash

Hurricane Hugo roared across South Carolina in late September 1989 with a vengeance and power felt seldom before and not once since.

From the beaches of the Charleston Lowcountry to the Carolina Piedmont region near Charlotte, Hugo destroyed the businesses, homes, hopes and dreams of thousands. The insurance payout just to repair homes alone was in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Homeowners insurance was a savior for many.

But along Hugo s destructive path through the state, in the rural areas, down dirt roads seldom seen, lived thousands of individuals and families who did not have the benefit of homeowners insurance. Their meager incomes would not allow for this luxury.

How would they rebuild the one thing they needed most: a safe and secure home? For them, all hope was lost.

Christians from many denominations saw the great need and stepped quickly into the void. Responding to Christ s call for love of neighbor and His charge to bear one another s burdens, United Methodists went into these rural communities with hammers, saws, sheetrock, plywood and skills to restore the homes of those who lacked the needed resources.

The mission and ministry that for 21-plus years has been known throughout South Carolina as the United Methodist Relief Center was born out disaster and pain, out of the love of our Lord and a willingness to serve Him by whatever means and wherever called. From the vision and dreams of a few committed Christians came a larger ministry of new homes and renewed hope for thousands of the rural poor.

For 21 years, the UMRC operated with money provided by donations from individuals and churches. Federal, state and private foundation grants were used to purchase building materials and pay subcontractors when needed. The greater portion of the construction and repair work came from volunteers who traveled distances to give a day or a week of their time.

Under the guidance of skilled, compassionate and knowledgeable construction supervisors, teams of volunteers built 59 Elderly Transportables and rehabilitated thousands of owner-occupied houses, all meeting the applicable building codes of the state and county.

By the hands and hearts of many, the UMRC made the motto Our Homes, Our Hope a living reality for the the least of these “ our brothers and sisters of rural South Carolina.

On July 29, the doors of the UMRC closed. A Chapter 7 bankruptcy is in progress.

For the past year, the UMRC Board of Directors has prayed often together and daily in private, worked hard and faithfully together, seeking every option that seemed a possibility to keep the UMRC open.

In the end, the failing economy that plagues our nation and world, the decline in individual and corporate charitable donations and a heavy debt structure was the reality that could not be escaped.

This article is written by a man, one who has known the UMRC a shorter time and with far less involvement than so many across South Carolina. It is written with pain and sadness after having served on the bo
ard of directors for only four years and having accepted the role of interim executive director on March 14, and now having to help bring an honorable end to a ministry that is still so greatly needed by so many.

The UMRC story is filled with victories. Ed Wire, the construction superintendent for more than 13 years, reminds us often that, No person is in a worse home because of the UMRC. Every client whose home we rehabbed and every person and couple we placed in an ET is much better off because of what we did.

We have met with our funding agencies to discuss our closure. Everyone of them thanked us for the work done. Everyone proclaimed, No one has done it as well in South Carolina as the UMRC has done the work of making homes safe and secure for those needing help.

They all tell us that the UMRC model of ministry is one to copy for the future.

Leaders of church volunteer teams from around the South echo the same strong sentiment. We ve been told, The UMRC did volunteer mission work to rebuild homes better than anyone in South Carolina. You have changed and improved the lives of so many rural families who needed your ministry. And you have been a blessing and provided a positive life-changing experience for the youth who have come to work on UMRC projects.

Victories! After 21 years of UMRC victories, could we possibly expect another one? The whole biblical story is about human failures and God s victories. Walls and temples were destroyed. God raised up other faithful men and women to rebuild the walls and restore the temples. Couldn t He, wouldn t He be able to raise up men and women to do it in 2011?

The God who sent his Son to die also sent him for resurrection. That s who we are.

The Hymn of Promise, number 707 in the Hymnal, sings at verse 3, In our end is our beginning, in our death, a resurrection, at the last a victory. We all understand the deeper meaning of those words. Couldn t we also apply them to a resurrected ministry that provides safe and secure housing for those in cannot provide it for themselves!

I invite you to send some of your UMRC victory stories to the Advocate for future editions.

I invite you to prayer that United Methodists across South Carolina will seek a way to build a new and better housing ministry for our rural brothers and sisters who need it greatly.

Carroll Cash and his wife, Helen, live in the New Hope community of Summerville. He retired as a local pastor in the Charleston District in 2010. He served on the UMRC board for four years and has been the interim executive director since March 14.

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