Church, Leadership Assisting Community Impacted by Train Derailment

By Rev. Ed Fashbaugh and Rick Wolcott*

Two weeks ago today, the eyes of the world focused on East Palestine as flames and smoke filled the sky of the 4,800-person town near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border following the derailment of nearly three dozen cars of a Norfolk Southern Railway train. The fire burned for days, and many businesses were forced to close because of chemicals that filled the air from the 11 derailed cars that were carrying hazardous materials.

Residents within a mile of the derailment were evacuated. Local, state, and national safety agencies converged on the town and set up a command center inside East Palestine Centenary UMC (Mahoning Valley District). The church was selected because of its long-time relationship addressing social concerns through its connection with Columbiana County’s The Way Station, a nonprofit staple within the community for individuals and families in need of emergency assistance, nutrition, clothing, household items, job training and emotional support. 

“Right now, everyone is doing as well as can be expected, but others are having struggles due to the enormous stress this is bringing,” shared Bill Sutherin, who, along with his wife Peggy, was evacuated from their home because of its proximity to the derailment. Used to assisting in times of need instead of being assisted, Sutherin still fulfilled his role of the Ohio Volunteers in Organizations Assisting in Disaster (VOAD) representative to the East Ohio Conference Disaster Response Committee.

“Centenary UMC has been a distribution point for air quality tests and Bill Sutherin has provided us with timely reports of the status of the situation there and he has been in regular contact with Mahoning Valley District Superintendent the Rev. Abby Auman,” said the Rev. Steve Court, East Ohio Conference disaster response coordinator.

“Thankfully no lives were lost and no buildings were damaged. At this point, air, water, and soil quality are the major concerns,” said Auman of the work being done by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “The coordination and degree of response is not like anything I’ve ever seen.”

There is much work still to be done, and many people who want to help.

Remember the simple rules of disaster response found on the Conference website:

  • Do No Harm right now:
    • Do Not “self-deploy” into a region until invited.
    • Do Not send supplies and clothes. Unwanted items sent into disaster zones become burdens on an already-overwhelmed area.
  • Do Good right now:
    • Pray for the communities impacted by the disaster, the lives forever changed, and those responding.
    • Collect an offering or host a fundraiser in your local church. Because of the connectional network of The United Methodist Church, 100% of all funds will be delivered to persons directly involved in or responding to the disaster. 

“East Ohio is preparing and planning for care after the initial disaster response subsides,” Court assures.

Learn more about East Ohio Conference Disaster Response.

*Rev. Ed Fashbaugh is executive director of Connectional Ministries and Rick Wolcott is executive director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.