A New Vision, A New Voice ~ The North Texas Conference
It’s Trial by Hurricane for New Disaster Response Leader
Janet Bell Odom’s on-the-job training gets real as she arranges Harvey relief.
By LINDA S. JOHNSON
Rev. Dr. Janet Bell Odom’s on-the-job training has been trial by hurricane.
The North Texas Conference’s new disaster response coordinator was just getting her footing in her new appointment when Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas Gulf Coast. She has been racing ever since to organize NTC relief efforts for people suddenly forced from their homes as the storm made landfall in Rockport and dumped record rain in Houston and southeast Texas.
In a marathon of conference calls, shelter visits, trips for baby items and arranging volunteer training, Dr. Odom says she’s in a “God-sent spot.”
“I’ve always been a busy person. I’m not one to sit around,” she said.
She had barely gotten her badge for basic early response training when the Category 4 hurricane made landfall Aug. 25, 2017, in Rockport. Other than reading some books, perusing a job file and praying, she’s been learning her position by doing. Her predecessor, Marji Bishir Hill, had already left for a new post in North Carolina when Dr. Odom came on board in July.
So, Dr. Odom has dived into the coordinator role. She’s found herself establishing drop-off points for flood buckets, collecting baby baths and pack-and-plays for infants to sleep in at area evacuee shelters, and providing spiritual guidance to the displaced. She’s working with the four NTC district trainers for early response teams, or ERTs, and more than 300 ERT volunteers as she coordinates with her peers in the Texas and Rio Texas conferences.
Her monthly conference call with local officials, other Christian relief groups and the American Red Cross now takes place twice weekly.
“You get a chance to listen to what everyone’s doing and how everyone is bringing something to the table,” she said.
The busy pace belies her onetime hesitancy to enter the ministry. A lifelong Methodist, she was always active in church and began to feel the tug after leading Bible Study Fellowship classes in her mid-30s. But she resisted the call for three years. At the time — a quarter-century ago — she worried about female clergy being treated fairly.
Dr. Odom had been a social worker fresh out of college, a career that appealed to her sense of community as she worked to turn around youth who had brushes with the law. As her husband, Elzie Odom Jr., rose up the career ladder with Xerox and IBM, she stayed home with their three children. IBM was about to transfer him to New York from Shreveport, Louisiana, when they made the second-career leap and came back to Texas to go to seminary.
“We decided it was time for us to begin to live the life that God had called us to,” she said.
He continued with IBM in Dallas-Fort Worth and attended Brite Divinity School part time while she kept a full class load at Perkins School of Theology and tended to the children. There were times when she put her children to bed, then studied or wrote papers through the night until waking the kids the next morning. So when young women today worry that they “can’t do it all, I say, ‘Yes, you can.’ ”
Today, she has been an ordained pastor for 22 years, and the Rev. Elzie Odom is senior pastor of Chapel Hill UMC.
Each of her pastorates, she said, has been a training ground for her new job.
That includes Camp Wisdom UMC, where, in 2005, “[Hurricane] Katrina had a lot of people coming to our church.” It’s also where she linked up with World Vision, a Christian group providing everything from clothes and food in emergencies, to Vacation Bible School materials for those in need.
She established feeding programs at her first appointment, Lambuth, which later merged into Community UMC, and at Owenwood UMC, and threw herself into a voter-registration drive at Hamilton Park UMC, where she was associate pastor just before her current job.
“I like community,” Dr. Odom said. “The church is part of community, and the church needs to be seen as part of that.”
Despite the hectic weeks that lie ahead, Dr. Odom said, “I’m here to continue the work and to do what I need to do. I’m going to rest and I’m going to get up with more energy to continue to help people, and that is what I think is in my soul.”