Couple Find Their Calling in the Storm

Starting a new life in New Orleans

Mark Lewis’ days start at about 6:30 a.m. in a crowded church sanctuary, where he addresses 100 or so volunteers who have arrived to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. “ministry is job NO. 1,” he tells them. “We’re here to meet needs, to minister to people, regardless of income.”

Mark directs the relief efforts of EFCA Compassion Ministries (now, ReachGlobal Crisis Response) in southern Louisianna. “Command central” is housed in Trinity Church (EFCA) in Covington, La. The tragedy of hurricanes Katrina and Rita – striking the Gulf Coast on August 29 and September 24, 2005 – presents the ministry “opportunity of a life-time” for which Mark and his wife, Denise, have been waiting for a decade or more.

The Lewises first became interested disaster-relief work in 1993, when they saw TV news footage of flooding in the Mississippi River valley. It was a “calling” from God, they say. As they watched coverage of relief efforts, Mark remembers asking, “What would keep us from doing that?”

“We wait for God to call us with sky-writing or miraculous signs,” he says. “But He’s calling us daily. The need is right in front of us all the time.”

The Lewises consequently made several trips to St. Charles, Mo., to help in flood relief efforts there. Since then, they have served with disaster-relief teams from their local church in Turkey, Florida, West Virginia and other places.

In 1999, while working toward a degree in organizational management, Denise wrote a research thesis on how churches have responded to natural disasters. She discovered that groups did a good job of offering immediate help, “but long-term commitments to clean-up and rebuilding was an under-served area.”

Denise even sent her thesis to EFCA’s crisis response ministry, but at that point the ministry was exclusively international in focus. So even though the thesis did not find a home, the Lewises continued dreaming of creating a long-term disaster-relief operation in the United States. “It’s where our heart is,” Mark says. “We used to joke that one day when we grow up maybe we could travel around in an RV and work on disaster relief.”

Then, in fall 2005, they found their opportunity. As soon as the Lewises heard about Katrina’s devastation, they contacted Jim Snyder, who was directing EFCA’s Compassion Ministries. “What do you need?” Mark asked.

“I need someone down there tomorrow to oversee things,” Jim answered.

Mark was ready to sign them up, and Denise’s initial reaction said it all: “Awesome.”

“We never questioned it,” she says now. “We’re moving, we thought, so we just started packing.”

Mark was the first to move, taking an indefinite leave of absence from his job as partner in a civil-engineering consulting firm in Harrisburg, Pa. He left behind the job, its 260 employees and its six-figure income.

Denise stayed behind only long enough to rent their house, finish the packing and then travel south with their children: Emily, 8; Kara, 5; and Caleb, 3.

Working from a converted Sunday-school room at Trinity Church, Mark and eight or so other ReachGlobal staff members oversee the daily deployment of up to 150 volunteers who arrive each week from all over the United States and Canada (was that you? Share your story with us!)

Apart from relief-effort coordination, Mark and Denise have been invaluable dreamers for ReachGlobal Crisis Response, based on their passion and experience. When Mark developed a work-order system that streamlined the Covington relief operations, the Lewises knew it could serve as a template for the future – so that local churches could create their own disaster-response team.

“How cool would it be,” Mark asks, “if rather than reacting after-the-fact to a storm, you put out a plea for help before the storm arrives and, within days if not hours, hundreds if not thousands of volunteers and resources could be moving to where they’re most needed?”

Originally published in EFCA Today Spring 2006

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