Churches Comfort Hurricane Ian Victims

Pastors and church volunteers sprang into action to assess need and provide comfort In the first weeks following Hurricane Ian striking southwest Florida. 

Ian brought 150-mph winds to Florida on Sept. 28, and there have so far been more than 110 storm-related deaths in Florida alone, as well as fatalities in Cuba, North Carolina and Virginia. The storm also knocked out power to 2.6 million homes and businesses, with long-term recovery estimated in the tens of billions of dollars. It is the deadliest storm to hit Florida in almost 90 years.

Florida Conference Bishop Kenneth H. Carter Jr. spent several days following the storm visiting pastors in areas that were hardest hit.

“We were just there to listen and pray, to try to be a visible sign of the connection,” he said. “It helps us to visually see how people are doing. Everyone we met was very exhausted, as are we.”

The Rev. Debbie Allen, superintendent of the South West District, which includes Fort Myers, said that of the 75 churches and missions in the district, at least two-thirds suffered some kind of damage.

“I think the community here got hit harder in a lot of ways but the churches seem to have been more fortunate in terms of damage, so you see them already out there trying to engage and work with their communities to offer help and hope,” Allen said. “It’s what we do. We’re United Methodists; we take our faith and put it into action.”

Pastors have been checking on and comforting congregation members, even as some of them deal with their own losses from the storm.

The Rev. Samantha Aupperlee, pastor of Beach United Methodist Church in Fort Myers Beach, said that while she hasn’t yet been cleared to return to the area after evacuating, she’s heard from about 90% of her members. Some who’ve lost their homes tell her they don’t plan to come back.

She’s still not sure about the status of her church or her parsonage. Aerial photos show both of them standing, but she won’t know of any possible damage until she can return. For now, she’s focused on reassuring her community.

“I’ve been telling my congregation that … we’re Easter people who believe in resurrection, that death and destruction and despair is not the end,” Aupperlee said. “I remind them that they are not alone. I’m walking alongside them; the Florida Conference is walking alongside them; and churches around the world are walking with us.”

The Rev. Kaylee Vida, pastor of Pine Island United Methodist Church in Bokeelia, is also waiting to return to the island to check on her congregants. She said many of her members are “snowbirds” who weren’t in the area when the storm hit, and she’s texting with those who are still there.

Vida said there are at least four church members who have lost homes and one with severe water damage. Most she’s connected with don’t have urgent needs for necessities, but were happy to be checked on. The storm recovery is calling on a different skill set than Vida expected to use in her ministry.

“No one teaches you in seminary how to pastor people through a hurricane,” she said.

The Rev. Arlene Jackson, pastor of the Fort Myers Central campus of Grace United Methodist Church, said that they held worship in the sanctuary the Sunday after Ian hit, even with limited electricity and no running water. Jackson reports they had a full house, sang hymns a cappella and celebrated Holy Communion together. Members of the 12-step recovery community, with whom the church has a strong partnership, brought grills to feed both the church and utility workers trying to restore power. A local DJ even brought a sound system to play music.

Jackson’s home took on three feet of water and she said she’s basically lost all her worldly possessions, “but we’ve got each other, we’ve got God and our faith.”

For Lara Martin, director of the U.S. Disaster Response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, this storm hit home — literally. A Florida native, Martin said that rather than numbers, she sees “the faces of cousins, aunts, uncles, my own pastor, and places where I’ve grown up — probably changed forever.”

Martin said that UMCOR has been partnering with the Florida Conference for years on the plans that are now in action.

“While the situation is chaotic and the emotions are raw even for me, we know what the next steps are going to be, and we know this conference has the capacity to change everything,” she said.

Clergy are urged to be mindful of self-care while they’re also caring for so many others.

Carter said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference made access to counseling available to pastors. The conference also created worship resources to allow pastors a respite or Sabbath weekend once a quarter. During the pandemic, $1,000 grants were available to use for physical and emotional well-being, for anything from taking a vacation to purchasing exercise equipment, and Carter said the grants could be offered following the hurricane as well.

“People have been through something and their bodies absorb that. The grants are a tangible way of saying we’re with you,” he said.

The Rev. Marcus Zillman, senior pastor of Cypress Lake United Methodist Church in Fort Myers, is concerned about the long-term psychological needs of his community. Because Ian was predicted to land further north, many in the Fort Myers area didn’t evacuate, including families with young children who may now be dealing with the trauma of going through such a deadly storm.

“Over the next few months, people will need to grieve and tell their stories,” he said.

Though it’s still early for widespread mobilization of work teams, a crew from the North Georgia Conference did make it to Fort Myers a few days after Ian struck.

Mark Brown, a disaster response team leader from Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta, said he’d been scheduled to deliver a truckload of supplies to the Florida Conference office in Lakeland when he got a call from his conference disaster relief coordinator, asking him instead to assemble a team and travel to Fort Myers as soon as possible. Brown said that within 15 hours, he had 11 volunteers.

“Jesus told us we’re supposed to do this, and it may seem like we’re serving a lot of people. But we get a lot of service out of it as well,” he said. “We go home full of God’s spirit, and fellowship and love we’ve inherited from the homeowners.”

Homeowner Sandy Smart was among those relieved to see the North Georgia team, which cleaned out his house after it took on six feet of water.

“It’s a blessing,” Smart said. “They’ve done an awesome job.”

Smart said he has no idea how long it will be before his house will be in good enough condition to live in. Like many affected by the storm, he said it’s going to be a long and slow process.

Zillman, Cypress Lake’s pastor, agreed.

“There’s gonna be needs here for the next six, eight, 12 months,” he said. “I hope everyone doesn’t forget about us once we’re off the front page because it’s gonna be a long recovery.”

Source: United Methodist News

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