United Church of Christ

New life in the wake of disaster, a reflection by Zach Wolgemuth

zach_wolgemuth_cropped_2.jpgBy Zach Wolgemuth

One year ago, we were witnesses to a series of destructive hurricanes that took lives and caused widespread damage along the Gulf Coast, across the Caribbean and in Florida.

Harvey. Irma. Maria.

Sometimes that all feels to me like they were years ago. Sometimes it feels like they were only a few months ago.

My heart and mind struggle to grasp the magnitude and sequence of these and so many other natural disasters this past year, including earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides, droughts, floods, volcano eruptions and more storms – most recently Typhoon Mangkhut and Hurricane Florence.

The still-rising waters caused by Hurricane Florence continue to make the news. But apart from recent stories about the first anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s landfall on Puerto Rico, most of the other disasters are no longer "breaking news" or constantly on the minds of the general public.

Does that mean those disasters are over? That survivors have recovered? No, each of them remains a current reality for all who were directly affected and for all committed to supporting their complete recovery.

No formula of weeks, months or years can measure recovery. The only measure is continuing need. With this understanding, I invite you to join UCC Disaster Ministries as we journey together with our sisters and brothers in recovery. We are called to the accompaniment of individuals, families and communities on the long, circuitous road to recovery.

This past year, God has led us to serve in multiple communities impacted by disaster. God has paved the way and opened doors for us to engage in the work of listening to the often marginalized voices calling out for help, assessing the challenges and identifying the gaps.

I note especially the great work we are privileged to support in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Florida. So far we’ve invested nearly $750,000 in these responses this past year, plus more than $300,000 in Port Arthur, Texas.

We’ve provided emergency supplies and construction tools, repaired dozens of homes, provided psychosocial support, conducted preparedness training, and recruited and supported volunteers among other activities.

Our approach is to be in solidarity with each community, allowing them to identify their unique needs, collectively leveraging our resources, and mobilizing the church in ways that create recovery while also addressing systemic issues of injustice.

Indeed, as the church we are called to the often difficult, transformative work of addressing the systemic inequity that exacerbates suffering when disaster strikes and permeates the lives of those recovering. If you can’t afford to buy water or get out of town before a hurricane hits, what are the chances of having sufficient resources and support to sustain yourself and your family when rebuilding drags on for months or years, often stagnating the local economy in the meantime?

It's a good bet that we will still be actively engaged with Harvey, Irma and Maria survivors - and with Florence survivors - when we mark the second anniversaries of Harvey, Maria and Irma and the first anniversary of Florence a year from now.

I have faith that God, working through us, can create something new. Why? Because I’ve seen it. I have seen new life brought to communities that were struggling even before the storms. I have seen the lives of disaster survivors transformed, injustices exposed, the work of solidarity and accompaniment carried out by my incredible colleagues, our volunteers and our partners. There is hope.

Hope is not passive and it does not stand alone. It is always yoked to patience, endurance and perseverance. Hope looks forward without forgetting the past or ignoring the present.

By Zach Wolgemuth, Executive for Disaster Ministries of the United Church of Christ.

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