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Pastor responds to disasters to serve others and to learn life lessons

Call him the "Disaster Pastor."

He's been involved in recovery work -- including floods, tornadoes and ice storms in New York State, hurricane response in the eastern United States, and has led mission teams to rebuild homes all over the East Coast.

The Rev. Carl Chamberlain, pastor of the charming Warrens Corners United Methodist Church in the Town of Lockport, has been disaster-response coordinator for the Western New York Conference of the United Methodist Church for more than 15 years.

"It seems Methodists have always been involved in social-justice ministry," said Chamberlain, who recently returned from Louisiana, where he underwent advanced training that focused on major disaster preparedness.

"A Category 5 hurricane hitting Connecticut has happened in the past, as has a series of major earthquakes along the New Madrid Fault in the middle of our country," he said. "It wasn't simply a matter of an exercise and practicing our skills, but thinking through the dynamics of disaster -- response and management necessary to deal with these eventualities. Such damaging events will happen sometime in the future, and many in our country will not be ready. Our trainers included all our denominational experts and representatives from FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency]."

Chamberlain also is a board member of the New York State Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) and the Niagara County Red Cross. In addition, he's an active member of the Cambria Volunteer Fire Company, serving as a member of its fire police and as one of the company chaplains. He's also a spiritual-care coordinator for Niagara Hospice.

He was assigned to the the Erie County morgue for several shifts after the crash of Flight 3407 in his capacity as a mental-health volunteer through the Erie County Specialized Medical Assistance Response Team, the Erie County version of the Medical Reserve Corps.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Chamberlain was deployed to the State Capitol for more than two weeks, where he represented NYS VOAD, the United Methodist Church and Church World Service. His disaster responses have included the Gowanda and Silver Creek flooding in 2009 and the 2006 "October Surprise" storm.

He has been working in disaster response since high school.

"My first response was a barn fire in January, when the temperature was below zero," Chamberlain said. "That was the day I learned to drink coffee. My second was a house fire in May before my high school graduation -- a 5-year old girl died in that fire. My first natural disaster was the week I graduated from high school, when we lost power for six days due to flooding from Hurricane Agnes."

Chamberlain is the oldest of six children and grew up in the third-generation on his family's dairy farm in Belfast.

"Small farms of the 1950s and '60s were a great place and time for kids to grow up. I had the run of the fields and woods of our farm on the bank of the Genesee River," the pastor said. "In addition to running the farm, my father, Wendell, and grandfather, Dorance, were active in the local church, several community organizations and in local government.

"They offered great lessons about work, enjoying life and serving others."

Chamberlain graduated from Belfast Central High School in 1972 and went on to Cornell University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in animal science, intending to become a veterinarian. "Instead, I went back to my family's farm," he said.

He began studies for his master's degree in counseling psychology at St. Bonaventure University, graduating in 1991. He held a series of positions, including mental-health therapist, employment counselor and answering crisis calls from around the country.

"These were great experiences in preparation for ministry," Chamberlain said. "I consider these experiences as much a part of my education as the degrees I have accumulated. Active as a church trustee, and in youth ministry activities, "it seemed I was being drawn toward ministry, something that had been in the back of my mind since high school. I talked with my pastor about enrolling in the United Methodist Church's year of exploration for ministry. When the year was over, I knew I was being called to my vocation as a pastor."

In 2000, he received his master of divinity degree from United Theological Seminary, and he's pursuing his doctorate in ministry from Wesley Theological Seminary.

His background and training helped in his future work.

"The United Methodist Church has developed a significant number of ministries and [nongovernmental organizations] throughout the world," Chamberlain said. "Our international focus includes working with refugees, hunger and poverty issues, as well as disaster response and recovery work, like we have in process in Haiti, Pakistan, the Philippines and Indonesia.

"Funds and manpower of the United Methodists are often given in support of domestic faith communities in those countries, helping local leadership build their skills and communities, rather than doing it for them."

Why does he make the time for others?

"There are needs to be met, and I have something to offer that can make a difference," he said. "One of the greatest things I've learned is the value of being a regular part of a community of faith. Faith offers a perspective on everything we do, in ways that are hard to find, and experience, elsewhere in the world. At times when we struggle, a church family can be an incredible support, not just during disasters. I firmly believe during the week following the crash of Flight 3407, too, that the church is the best place to put our volunteer hours, and donation funds, to their most effective and efficient use to help others.

"The uniting thread is not church relationships, though, but the message of something greater being there with us, that many people call God. To be already familiar and comfortable with a community of church friends when we need them is a gift to us from God. It's not something that can necessarily be found with a casual visit or occasional worship. It is a wonderful thing, too, to be able to help others in their times of need."

Warrens Corners United Methodist Church, 5293 Stone Road, has more than 50 congregants and dates back to the early 1800s, when tavern owner Ezra Warren donated the land to build a church. Sunday services are at 11 a.m., with traditional Sunday school at 10 a.m.

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Have an idea for Religion News? Write to Louise Continelli, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240 or e-mail her at lcontinelli@buffnews.com

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