Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest is no stranger to charity and social work. So it was a natural reaction to want to help with the national efforts to rebuild after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

How to move beyond the quick fundraiser and a passing connection was the goal of church member Barbara Rinnan. Rinnan spoke to other Grace members and then to Pastor Bruce Modahl. “I said, let’s do something! What can we do? Can we adopt a town or something?” said Rinnan. Rinnan contacted the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s Disaster Relief Office, and asked to be paired with a Grace Lutheran church from the hurricane-ravaged areas.

The result? Grace Lutheran, River Forest has partnered up with Grace Lutheran, Long Beach, Mississippi. And, not just for the moment. The covenant linking the two churches is extensive and long-term.

“Long Beach has been absolutely destroyed,” said Rinnan, who went on to explain how in this small beachfront town, the other churches and schools were leveled, and that Grace Lutheran Long Beach, in addition to serving its own congregation’s needs, was taking on additional children at the school (now up to 300 children total), and offering its building for other religious services. “Twenty families in Long Beach had lost their homes ?#34; including the principal and three teachers of the school,” said Rinnan. Grace Lutheran RF has dedicated itself to working closely with Grace Lutheran Long Beach, and to sending what is really needed. To that end, Rinnan often communicates with Long Beach’s pastor, Barbara Hunter. Rinnan mantra is Pastor Hunter’s constant plea that, “These children have nothing.”

To solve that, and other pressing needs in the Long Beach community, Rinnan’s committee has galvanized River Forest’s congregation. The students at Grace Lutheran School gathered donated supplies and then spent a morning working their way through an assembly line to create bags of school supplies and toiletries for the students at Long Beach. They moved quickly through the lines, making sure that each of their fellow students in Mississippi would get pencils, notebooks, small toys, towels, and toothpaste, things they have plenty of.

The students had already held small fundraisers when Hurricane Katrina first hit New Orleans, and so were all set to work for Long Beach. “They were old hands,” said Rinnan, helping a second grader zip the bag of school supplies. The students are also helping promote an ongoing new clothing drive, which the Grace Lutheran Girl Scout troop will later sort and ship.

Grace Lutheran RF’s covenant to Long Beach means that this is no simple, one-time donation. “Everyone is dedicated and concerned, attempting to send the best they have, like new clothes, new books, and unused supplies,” said Rinnan, who added, “My phone is ringing all the time with people asking, ‘How can I help?'” In addition to sending the bags of school supplies and toiletries, and the new clothing drive, Grace Lutheran is organizing a fundraiser to sell gift cards to Home Depot, Lowe’s, Target, and Wal-Mart, stores in the Long Beach area that are still open. The gift cards will then be sent to Long Beach families who can then buy what they need. “We’re doing the gift cards because what that does is it gives the people a little more dignity than accepting donations,” said Rinnan.

In addition to the gift cards, Grace Lutheran RF is planning a benefit concert for November, and to then send members of their congregation to Mississippi in January to assist in the physical rebuilding process. Although Grace Lutheran would love to send help now, they can’t, because as Long Beach’s pastor reminded them, “There would be nowhere to house them.”

“These people do need our help, and everyone is helping, not just here, but around the country, God bless them,” said Rinnan.

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