As Hurricane Matthew churned up the Carolinas coast in October 2016, Gary Locklear and his neighbors braced for soggy weather. Robeson County, N.C., is inland, but forecasters predicted that several inches would soak the area.
Over the next few days, the storm dumped more rain than expected, saturating farmland and towns. The Lumber River – its coppery water already at flood stage – spilled beyond its banks, swirling down streets into businesses and homes.
Gary wasted no time seeing how he could help. Just eight days in to a well-deserved retirement, he went to work with the United Methodist Committee on Relief, known as UMCOR. As site manager in Lumberton, the county seat, he coordinated efforts after the muddy water receded. He later served as the organization’s spokesperson, sharing stories about persistent needs and recovery.
He’s grateful, he says, for being able to make a difference. For him, service is part of a lifelong commitment to his church and community.
Born in the Robeson County town of Pembroke, he was the youngest of 11 children raised on his parents’ farm. As members of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, his family holds deep roots in the rural area.
After finishing elementary school, high school and college – which were all on the same block – Gary returned to his high school, this time as a teacher. His next job, at a glass company, also kept him nearby. He and his wife, Panthia, still live on the family farm, a few hundred yards from the home Gary was born in.
Leaving Robeson County was never his plan. When he traveled for work, he always looked forward to going home, drinking coffee his kitchen and watching his cows graze in the pasture.
His church, Sandy Plains United Methodist, established by the Lumbee in 1906, is one of the anchors keeping him close. In the days when Lumbee families weren’t welcomed in many shops or restaurants, Sandy Plains had an open door.
Gary has been a lay leader since he was 19, serving on nearly every committee and teaching Sunday School for more than 40 years. For the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, he has focused on Native American Ministries and rural life. He worked with UMCOR from October 2016 to June 2018, and has stepped in several times since.
He wears the organization’s lime-green shirt with pride. “You can walk anywhere in Robeson County in this shirt and people know you’re someone they can trust,” Gary says. “The word on the street in this area is, ‘The green shirts will help you.’”
Heartbreak – and Hope
On a recent afternoon, he parks his red pickup outside a house within walking distance of the Lumber River. Paint cans sit stacked in the sandy front yard; the sound of sawing pierces the quiet. “Volunteer Labor Provided by United Methodist Disaster Relief,” reads a sign posted near the street.
Stepping around scaffolding, Gary shows how crews have raised the home several feet above ground to keep floodwater outside. The occupant will move back from temporary housing this fall.
With nearly 32 percent of the population living below the poverty level, Robeson is one of the state’s most distressed areas – and Hurricane Matthew delivered additional challenges. When some families were finally returning to refurbished homes, Hurricane Florence battered the same towns just two years later.
Relief work has taught Gary much about the indomitable human spirit. Despite heartbreaking loss, he has seen families find the resilience they need to see beyond disaster.
“Even when an entire community is broken,” he says, “with help, we can rise up together and thrive again.”
Supporting Communities in the Carolinas
In December 2018, The Duke Endowment awarded $5 million to support communities in the Carolinas that were impacted by Hurricane Florence. Of that, $2 million was targeted to help the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) address immediate recovery needs in North Carolina and South Carolina. The Endowment will distribute the additional $3 million to support rebuilding efforts long term.
Founded in 1940, UMCOR is the global humanitarian aid and development agency of The United Methodist Church. The organization is working in more than 80 countries worldwide, including the United States and its territories. Its mission is to alleviate human suffering – whether caused by war, conflict or natural disaster – without regard to religion, race, nationality or gender, and to enhance the quality of life in the human community.
UMCOR’s response includes providing disaster case management services, accessing essential supplies, supporting long-term rebuilding efforts, and assisting communities as they adapt.
As of October 2019 – for recovery from hurricanes Matthew in 2016, Florence in 2018 and Dorian in 2019 – disaster ministries in The North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church have included:
• 1,722 teams
• 22,381 volunteers
• 742,392 hours of volunteer labor valued at $18,879,029
• 763 completed homes
• 222 homes under construction
• 765 additional homes in case management
• 9 disaster recovery centers and six satellite housing recovery centers in eastern North Carolina
The numbers measure the work, says Steve Taylor, director of Connectional Ministries with The North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, but they don’t fully capture the impact. When volunteer teams join the community, they bring in skills – and hope
“The energy of shared lives and connected hands, and the joy of helping voices, breathes life into spaces of despair,” Steve says. “Suddenly, one can see beyond flooded homes and crushed dreams… and begin to vision healing and wholeness.”
Kristen R. Richardson-Frick