Part of the “View From The Parsonage” series
It has been raining for what seems like days. Actually, it really has been raining for days. Cold. Wet. Rain. Hurricane Sandy has done her worst. Thankfully, in our region, her worst was not that bad.
But Ivan was a different story. Ole’ Ivan hit us during the night of September 17-18, 2004. We had just moved in to the parsonage in late July of that year. Our ministry was brand new, and we had big plans for the coming weeks. Things never quite go the way you expect.
The day started like most Saturdays. I woke up whenever my eyes happened to open, and I took a look out our bedroom window. This might seem weird, but I always look out the window first thing every day. Most Saturday mornings are quiet in our town, but not on this day. There were scores of people walking around. I went to another window to get a better look, and that’s when I saw it. Water. Lots of it. Big sections of our town were flooded. Those flood waters were a little more than a block from the parsonage.
Hurricane Ivan turned out to be one of those life experiences you don’t easily forget. We had only been in the church since July. We were still getting to know the area. That Sunday, September 19, was supposed to be the big fall kickoff for the youth group I was hired to pastor. All of that was off the table now. The town was flooded.
Saturday was spent walking around taking pictures. There wasn’t much we could do until the water receded, but by Sunday the work had begun. It was pretty bad. There was nasty mud everywhere, and the whole town stunk. But you know what? People really stepped up. Folks who weren’t affected by the flood pitched in. The first day after the flood, some local businessmen paid to have large dumpsters brought in, nearly the entire church showed up, and we got to work.
Flood cleanup is long and involved. Our congregation really didn’t know what it was getting into, but because of geography our church became “flood central”. When FEMA showed up more than a week later, they didn’t offer any help because our people were were doing such a good job. In fact, they recommended other communities come and see what ours was doing.
Ours is an old historic town, and our church sits right in the middle of it in the bend of the creek. Our church and the entire town is surrounded on three sides by that large creek. The church sits at the highest point and all the rest of the town goes down hill from that point all the way to the creek except for the road that leads up and out of the creek bottom to the sister borough that sits on the hill above us. In a very real way our church became the island in the middle of the flood surrounded on three sides by water.
The next six weeks were filled with near constant activity. We soon realized that many of the people whose homes were flooded didn’t have anywhere else to go. There was a scramble in those first few days to get everyone a place to sleep. Thanks to the Salvation Army, many were given vouchers for local hotels. Some slept in our church’s gym and used the showers.
Clean up was hard work, and it became clear that it was going to take weeks to get things even close to normal. People were working on their houses during the day and into the evening. Cold weather was coming, and nobody had the luxury of time. It became clear to us that people needed to be fed, and the many good cooks in our church started doing their thing. God’s people did a very Christian thing. They fed the hungry. It started with just our church in our fellowship hall, but grew into every church in the community cooking and donating food. The Christian community, through our church, fed 200 people twice a day, everyday for 6 weeks.
Donations started rolling in: clothes, shoes, dishes, cookware, and cleaning supplies. Bleach turned out to be really important, and local companies donated it by the trailer full. Pickup trucks full of bottled water rolled in, and soon our gymnasium was completely full with all sorts of goods people needed. There were so many cars coming to the church everyday that our then unpaved parking lot was ground to dust. During those weeks, pot holes and mud were the signs of God’s provision.
Many other groups showed up. The Mennonites sent work teams. Several churches sent people. Some of our own people spent days helping complete strangers clean their homes. At any given point in the day you could go into our fellowship hall, and you would find people resting or drinking a cold cup of water. These were moving times, and we saw the best in our neighbors.
God’s good providence, while being hard to see in the middle of the flood, became obvious when the water receded. It was visible in the lives of people as a community, mostly of Christians, came together to help in a time of real crisis. The church became a clearing house where people with needs could be connected with people who had the means to meet those needs. The phones were ringing constantly, and we brought in two volunteers just to answer them so the full time office staff could get its normal work done.
I came into the office one day to find a woman tearfully telling the story of her longtime family home being destroyed by the flood. She told how she found a demolition company that was going to charge her $20,000 to clear the debris. (It was disappointing that not every person or business was generous during those weeks. More than one local business saw an opportunity to make extra money off of others’ tragedies.)
As this woman was telling us her story another woman walked up, put her arm around the first, and said, “My husband and I own a demolition company. We have all the equipment, and we’ll do it for free.” These were the types of things happening during those weeks in the Fall of 2004. God bringing together people with needs with those who were capable.
I looked out our bedroom window on September 18, 2004 and I saw water, but on September 19 I saw grace and compassion. I saw Christians being Christians. I saw a community come together. I saw people with distrust of Christians come to think that maybe we weren’t such a bad bunch after all. Christian service and love builds trust. One neighborhood skeptic said to me, “Say what you want about your church, but you’ve always stuck to your convictions and live what you believe.” High praise indeed.
We were privileged to watch it all with our view from the parsonage.