Project Unify: Local churches of Christ merge efforts to respond to natural disasters
By Catherine Godbey
For the Enquirer
The outreach ministry started simply – with two men and a truck.
Loaded with bins of snacks, tarps, chainsaws and cleaning supplies, Robert Guinn and Cody Michael, co-outreach ministers with Decatur church of Christ, crisscrossed the Southeast, responding after hurricanes, floods and tornadoes.
Slowly, with each natural disaster the men responded to, the outreach ministry has grown into a multi-church effort called Project Unify.
“This has become what it is because we dared to dream big,” Michael said. “We realized we could teach more people about Jesus, and we could help more people benevolently, if we worked together. Every congregation has filled different roles.”
Project Unify consists of four Morgan County churches: Decatur church of Christ takes care of the truck, trailer and insurance, Flint church of Christ supplies cleaning items, Priceville church of Christ provides evangelistic material, and Hartselle church of Christ gathers roofing materials.
Since summer 2018, when Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina, the ministry has responded to 28 natural disasters. They have traveled to North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia and Florida.
Most recently, Project Unify traveled to Fultondale this past week in response to a tornado.
While the ministry started out as a way to meet a community’s physical needs following a natural disaster, the mission quickly expanded to meeting people’s emotional and spiritual needs.
Michael and Guinn credited the late Antony Watts for the ministry’s growth. Before his death in October 2019, Watts was an active volunteer with Project Unify. Many of the early trips consisted of Michael, Guinn and Watts, who brought compassion and humor to the victims of natural disasters.
“He would cry with anybody who was crying, and then he’d have them laughing. He just had that way about him. He could reach people,” Michael said. “He was a big reason why we tried to get more involved with the people, rather than just delivering items and clearing roads and yards.”
In North Carolina, they prayed with people who had lost their homes and found shelter in a restaurant. In Panama City, they moved a steeple from the middle of the road and duct-taped it to a stump, where it stood for three weeks and served as an inspiration for the community. In Tennessee, a woman greeted them with “Thank you so much for being here.”
“I wanted to cry because there was so much joy and pain behind her voice,” Guinn said. “Moments like that help you realize what you are doing is good, and it is making an impact. This is something we can do to help others for the glory of God.
“We can’t find a better way of practicing what we preach and showing people we actually believe what we say we believe.”
A memory in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, following a tornado, stands out to Michael.
“There was a woman who wouldn’t let us clean her yard, but she did let me pray with her,” Michael said. “She had told me she was an atheist. In the middle of the prayer, I heard her crying. After the prayer, she picked her head up and said, ‘I see God for the first time in all these people.’ That’s why we do this.”
Along with tarps, roofing nails, chainsaws, power tools and cleaning supplies, the Project Unify crew packs Bibles and spiritual pamphlets.
“Our goal is to teach people about Jesus. Being benevolent is extremely important, but more important is reaching somebody’s soul,” Michael said. “Our prayer is that we can reach people and tell them about Jesus. In the worst time of their life, to give them some of the best news that you can, that’s pretty awesome.
“If I can take a chainsaw and teach somebody about Jesus, I’ll do that all day long.”
Six months ago, the ministry purchased a new truck with “Project Unify” emblazoned on the side. Decatur church of Christ also bought a fire truck. Originally envisioned to be used as a mobile Vacation Bible School, the fire truck – named “Burning Bush” – doubles as a disaster relief truck.
“Many times, after disasters, a lot of people will come out to volunteer. If you are organized and look like you know what you are doing, those barricades open up and allow us to serve in a way that others can’t,” Guinn said. “I hope we can be ambassadors for north Alabama and all of the people who gave donations.”
HOW TO HELP
Individuals interested in supporting the ministry can contact Decatur church of Christ, 2833 Danville Road SW, about volunteering or dropping off items, such as snacks, cleaning supplies, drinks, pet food items, tarps, nails, Bibles, photo albums for when people find pictures in broken picture frames and letters of encouragement.
“Project Unify is about using every single person’s talent to help them in their hardest time of need. Everybody can help in some way,” Michael said. “If you can’t run a chainsaw or walk up and down the neighborhood, you can write letters of encouragement to complete strangers that we can hand out. You can also pray. Prayers are the thing we ask for the most.”
To keep up with the outreach ministry, tune into the Project Unify podcast at anchor.fm/projectunify.