Seminary alumni offer relief to flood-ravaged WV

Photos courtesy of Frank Cunningham (M.Div.’13)

By Crystal R. Sygeel (M.Div./M.A.C.E. ‘96)
UPSem Communications

On June 23, 2016, a phenomenon known as “train” flooding — which involves thunderstorms lining up over the same location like the cars of a freight train — hit West Virginia and nearby parts of Virginia.

Before it stopped the region had received eight to 10 inches of water in mere hours. A federal disaster was declared in twelve of the hardest-hit counties, while a state of emergency was declared in 44 of the state’s 55 counties due to the floods. Numerous lives were lost, and over 20,000 homes damaged or destroyed.

Frank Cunningham

“God’s grace abounds,” might not be the response one would expect in the aftermath of a natural disaster of this magnitude, but alumnus and pastor to Barnwell Presbyterian Church in Barnwell, South Carolina, Frank Cunningham (M.Div.’13), can tell you that it does with absolute certainty. Cunningham spent the week based out of First Presbyterian Church in White Sulphur Spring, WV.

“Initially, we opened the doors of the church to make the sanctuary and ourselves available to people for prayer and support,” said Cunningham. “But no one came. That’s when we realized, we had to go out and meet the people wherever they were, both physically and emotionally.”

Barbara Chalfant

Cunningham and alumna Barbara Chalfant (M.A.C.E.’94), Associate Presbyter for Mission for the Presbytery of West Virginia, both, found themselves in conversations with service providers on how to address the needs of the effected communities from several angles. Thus a plan emerged for clergy, non-profit professionals, and providers from relief agencies to go out together in pairs to visit and talk with people throughout the region.

In the coming weeks, Cunningham and Chalfant would establish, a pastoral care website which offers “emotional care for those in need,” where people can request visits, and clergy can volunteer to come and provide support.

“People have a tendency to think of providing for basic needs in times like these,” said Chalfant, “and those are important. But what we’re finding is that people need to be able to tell their story in order to move beyond the trauma of what’s happened. After they tell their story, then they begin to ask for what they need.”

Key to this effort has been an established morning meeting which takes place every day at 9:30. Initially begun at First Presbyterian Church in White Sulphur Spring, the meeting is now held in Rainelle, WV, in the old Magic Mart building. Each day, representatives from various denominations and non-profits gather together to pray, to discuss their experiences from the day before, and strategize on the work for the day ahead. The same group returns at 5:00 p.m. to pray, process, and look to tomorrow.

“The recovery will take years,” said Cunningham. “The outpouring of support and services in the region has been nothing short of miraculous. However, there is much that remains to be done.”

You can help! Visit The website includes links to a variety of agencies at work in the area.