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City’s flood 'another disaster'

The neighborhood already had too many gangs, too much drug violence, too many broken families - and then earlier this month it got too much water.

BY SUSAN KIM | TRENTON, N.J. | April 25, 2005

"We’re simply at war here trying to do the right thing."

—Rev. Donald Sullivan Medley

The neighborhood already had too many gangs, too much drug violence, too many broken families - and then earlier this month it got too much water.

Now, while still trying to reclaim peace in his city, the Rev. Donald Sullivan Medley is also learning how to respond to a flood disaster.

“I never knew we were in a flood plain,” said the senior pastor at Cadwalader-Asbury United Methodist Church in Trenton, “though last September we had bad rains, too.”

This week when Medley invited flood-affected families to come to church to tell their stories, nobody came. “They said, ‘Pastor, I would come - but I’ve had enough. People have been in and out of my house for three weeks.”

During a Bible study this month, Medley talked to a woman who still had not finished repairing her home after it was damaged from floods when Hurricane Ivan swept through the state in September. “Her husband had breathing problems and her basement is filled with dirt, and this time the water came up to the first floor.

“This has hit people twice in such a short period of time - and this time is much worse than September,” he said.

He tries to tell people what he told them every day before the flood hit: “Be very courageous. Be of good courage.”

This section of Trenton was historically the most prestigious part of the community, said Medley. “But over the years, businesspeople have left. After the 1960s riots, a lot of businesses left the area.”

Now instead of businesses, he said, “there are gangs parlaying for territory.”

The flood, to Medley, is like a disaster on top of a war. “There’s a war going on in our streets. It’s sexist, age discrimination, racism, profiling. We’re simply at war here trying to do the right thing. The flood is just another disaster.”

He worries most about the teenagers - his own three teenage children and those on Trenton’s streets. “They’re speaking a different language that the church doesn’t understand.”

He said even the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks felt different in his neighborhood than it might in other communities. “To us, there was a terrorist attack in an urban setting where they’ve been living in terror every day. And so you might be able to understand why, to me and many folks in this neighborhood, flooding is just another bump in the road.”

When a disaster happens in an already-troubled community, city and local officials might not pay too much attention at first, especially if social service funds are already being siphoned into that community, said Tom Hazelwood, executive secretary for U.S. disaster response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. “And so sometimes the faith community has to advocate for that attention after a disaster,” he said.

Hazelwood said he has seen this pattern after tornadoes hit Little Rock, Arkansas, and severe flooding struck Houston, Texas.

Hazelwood also recalled a Native American man’s thoughts on tragedy in his own troubled community. “He said, ‘we are a people of tragedy. Something that happens is just another tragedy in our story.’ ”

A disaster becomes part of the landscape, Medley agreed. “We’ve been through more tragic events daily and it hasn’t hit the news. Gang members beat up a young man the other day because he wouldn’t join them. He’s from a hardworking family. Right now I can’t say to that family - ‘here’s $250,000 so you can go buy a home somewhere else.’ I’m powerless. My families don’t have that option.

“And then there’s the flooding. We just have these things compounding.”

Yet people are able to regroup and go on with life, he said. “This one woman, her house had burned down in the 1970s. And now she’s still out of her home from the flooding. Yet she said, ‘God can help you through. He’s done it for me.’ Other people ask her how she can say that since she’s not even back in her home.

“People are resilient. Thank God for faith.”

Medley envisions purchasing some farmland on which youth and senior citizens can work together in a retreat setting. “Someday, I want a quiet and serene place - a farm where seniors and youth can grow a seed.”

Medley is a founder of Change Ministries, Inc., a nonprofit based in the cities of Camden and Trenton. Change Ministries serves severely impoverished urban areas with a predominately African American and Hispanic population. The services provided by Change Ministries are oriented from youth through the senior adult population that is in greatest need due to conditions of poverty, discrimination, or limited educational, health care, and employment opportunities.

Through flood recovery - and whatever else may befall his neighborhood - Medley said he’ll keep fighting for change. He believes that will only come through advocacy. “My theology is you have not because you ask not,” he said. “Put yourself in the way of a blessing so it can overtake you.”

City officials have to hear from pastors, Medley added. “As a pastor, you have to know the landscape. Know the politicians. If you don’t foster those kinds of relationships, you can’t help your people.”

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