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United Methodists Respond Following Train Derailment


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Photo credit Ron Goulet

When tragedy struck in north Missouri on June 27, Zion United Methodist Church was ready to help.

The Southwest Chief 4 was on its way from Los Angles to Chicago when with 275 passengers and 12 crew members when it struck a dump truck crossing the tracks near Mendon at 12:42 p.m. on Monday. The dump truck driver and two people on the train were killed on the scene, and a fourth person died today. More than 50 were injured in the crash and derailment.

Rev. Tom Parks learned of the accident when he received a text notifying him of the need for chaplains. Parks had been the Linn County sheriff for more than 20 years, so he called a friend that he knew would be on the scene to see if having more chaplains there would be helpful before he went to the scene.

“I know how chaotic a site like that can be,” he said. He was advised that his presence there wasn’t needed, so he told them he would open up the church for anyone who needed it and went there instead. He let some church members know what was going on and they gathered at the church to help, bringing air mattresses, snacks and beverages. Zion UMC is an open country church that is about seven miles from the site of the derailment.

“We’re across the road from a cattle feedlot, and that’s about it,” Parks said.

Soon the church was receiving nine people for the evening. They expected a few more, but the others didn’t get released from the hospital. Parks credits the church’s ability to host to some forward-thinking that occurred years before he was pastor there.

“The church was building a new fellowship hall, and one of the NOMADS (a group of United Methodist traveling mission volunteers that stay in RVs) suggested they put in a shower,” Parks said. “I understand they had some back and forth about it, regarding whether or not it was needed, but I’m glad they stuck with it and did it.”

The group they hosted that night also happened to be a church group. The Catholic group included several teenagers. Their church had a tradition of traveling from their home in Cincinnati, Ohio and working on mission projects in the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. One of the people with their group was someone from the Navajo Nation who was traveling with them back to Ohio to visit.

Parks said there was a great community response, with people bringing more than enough food to the church.

“We’ll take what’s leftover and donate what we can to the food pantry,” he said.

This morning a volunteer took the church van to Springfield, Illinois to meet someone driving the mission group’s church van from Ohio. This wasn’t the first time Zion UMC was a temporary home to strangers. Two years ago during a flood the church had two families stay there for about two weeks.

Other area United Methodists stepped up as well. Rev. Charles Littrell is pastor of the United Methodist Church in Mendon, as well as Sumner and South Eagle. He lives in Chillicothe, about 45 minutes away. He first learned of the accident when he got a call from his friend Rev. Joel Kidwell, pastor of Trinity UMC in Brookfield. Littrell hurried over to Northwestern High School in Mendon, where people who were not seriously hurt were being taken.

“A lot of people were shaken up and scared,” Littrell said. “Some were worried about their luggage, and missing medication that they needed.”

Littrell went to work distributing water and snacks and offering prayers. Several people appreciated and accepted the prayers and assistance. Littrell wasn't alone in his efforts. The community came out to help in any way that they could. 

“I saw members of our churches in Mendon and South Eagle there doing the same thing as me,” Littrell said.

After about three hours most of the people were getting arrangements and transportation to wherever they were going to stay that night, so volunteers were asked to leave. Littrell mourns the loss of life and feels for those who are injured but is also grateful so many were able to walk away. On his way over to Mendon, he was hearing from people that the death toll was much higher.

“It could have been a lot worse,” he said. “God is good.”