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Small PA church turns mighty

Rev. Yeager won't agree with anyone who says a small church can't have a big impact.

BY HEATHER MOYER | KENSINGTON, Penn. | August 6, 2004

"Most don't have insurance - most people don't even have enough money for lunch."

—Rev. Celeste Yeager

Rev. Celeste Yeager will not agree with anyone who tells her that a small church cannot have a powerful impact on the community - especially after seeing how her church handled last weekend's flooding in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.

When Yeager arrived at the Kensington Congregational United Church of Christ (UCC) Sunday morning, the entire neighborhood was flooded and numerous residents couldn't get into their homes. To add to the troubles, the water was green - contaminated by a sewer line that had broken earlier.

Yet Kensington UCC took immediate action, according to Yeager, as the local chapter of the American Red Cross disaster-trained parishioners right there at the church. Later that morning, the church turned into the local disaster response station, giving residents a place to stay with their children until allowed home again. The parishioners served meals and provided childcare at the church disaster station for three days.

"Our little church of 43 members may not have a lot of money, but every one of them has the biggest heart in the world," said Yeager.

The Kensington neighborhood is the poorest section of Philadelphia and surrounding areas, according to Yeager. When torrential downpours flooded several Philadelphia communities last weekend, Yeager said Kensington was the forgotten neighborhood, with emergency officials and relief efforts focusing on Upper Darby and Havertown.

"Officials came here and quickly told people they could return to their homes," explained Yeager. "But that wasn't the case, the homes were contaminated - you could smell it as soon as you went in."

With that, Kensington UCC got to work again, calling and pressuring city officials to come back and realize the homes were not safe. Many flood families were worried about their homes' soggy foundations collapsing.

And the pressure worked, as local and state emergency officials will be in the neighborhood Saturday to further assess damages.

More good news came Thursday afternoon when Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell declared three southeast Pennsylvania counties as disaster areas. Some 500 homes were affected by the flooding across Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties.

Everyone in the Kensington community is hoping for a federal disaster declaration, said Yeager, as many do not have the money or supplies to clean out the flooded areas of their homes. "Most don't have insurance - most people don't even have enough money for lunch," she said.

A low-income neighborhood with a high minority population and high drug-use statistics, Yeager said the community is often ignored and written off. "But this just means they need the help all the more," she explained.

Yeager said she's fortunate to have such a hard-working church and she's amazed at how quickly they learned about the disaster response process. They're now turning to outside sources for more assistance and training.

Not only are other area churches coming together to lend a hand, but Yeager said they're also getting assistance from the national office of the United Church of Christ, Church World Service, Episcopal Community Services, Catholic Charities, the Seventh Day Adventists, and the Lutheran Church.

"Our tiny little church is now making this into an ecumenical movement," she laughed. This Sunday there will also be a meeting of all the local pastors to continue to assess the neighborhood's needs.

Another help to Kensington UCC and the flood families is Yeager's own background. A pastor who also has a master's degree in social work, she said her training paid off this week. But the neighbors in and around her church are an asset she will never take for granted.

"What impressed me was the community working together to get the needs met," Yeager said. "That's the Kensington way. They're very strong here, they do what they can to survive. They will not be ignored and they're very good at organizing."

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