In the aftermath of Ian, community is key
Clergy and lay leaders in areas of Florida devastated by Hurricane Ian Wednesday, Sept. 28, are ministering to their congregants and community as best they can.
On Oct. 2, World Communion Sunday, the Rev. Mike Ford broke bread with about a dozen people in attendance. And though he preached before a much smaller group than usual, he had to speak up since power wasn’t restored to the Congregational United Church of Christ of Punta Gorda until after services.
All in all, he said, the church fared fairly well, sitting in the path of the deadly monster Category 4 storm that decimated Southwest Florida.
“We lost some solar panels off the roof,” he said. “It was raining so hard water was blown through the plate glass, without breaking the window. Our power lines pulled off the polls and the pole on our property came down.
“No one was injured. Many of our people’s homes are damaged, but not what they can’t repair.
“We were blessed; as bad as the storm was, no one was hurt.”
The Punta Gorda church survived Charlie in 2004, but that destruction was extensive. “The building lost stained-glass windows that were blown in and the rain came into the sanctuary, flooding the inside of the church. All that was replaced.
“This time the damages were minor,” Ford said. “People going to the church will be more traumatized than the church was. Charlie lasted about an hour and a half. Ian was on us for 30 hours.”
The biggest loss, he noted, was to their ‘hope tree,’ a native tree planted to mark the church’s recent capital campaign to make the place more accessible.
“In the past six months, our tree has doubled in size,” Ford said. “The hurricane took almost every branch off the tree. It’s looking pretty sad. We are hoping that will be our resurrection tree from Ian – I said that to a couple folks already. They know this type of tree makes a strong comeback. As long as the roots are good, it’s going to grow again. And that’s a good metaphor for the church.”
Right now, the Rev. Mark Boyea, pastor of Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ , is reaching out to his church members by phone and email – and hoping they can be contacted.
“We are really just beginning to be in touch with people,” he said. “We are working our way through the directory to try to find out how folks are faring.”
Sanibel Island and the surrounding coastal communities, like Boyea’s town of Cape Coral, took a direct hit. Power is still spotty a week later, which also means no water. Boyea said people evacuated from Sanibel are just now being allowed to go back temporarily to check on their property — by boat — because the causeway to the island washed away.
The Sanibel pastor is new to the area, having begun his call at the island church on Sept. 18. He and his wife Cindy had to evacuate their home on Tuesday, Sept. 27. They spent two nights sleeping on the floor at the local high school with their cats, taken care of by local volunteers.
“God bless those people. They were wonderful,” he said, noting the shelter housed about 2,000 people and 300 pets. “They did everything they could to keep people comfortable, to keep people fed.”
Checking on people
Thursday afternoon, Sept. 29, they were able to venture out to check the damage.
“Our home went largely untouched. In our part of Cape Coral there were a lot of trees down, and fences were damaged the worst,” he said. With power lines down there was no electricity, water or internet.
“Getting antsy about trying to be able to reach out to the congregation,” Boyea and his wife relocated to the Naples winter home of a friend so he could connect with Sanibel’s parish nurse and lay leaders.
Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 4, he sent out a congregation-wide email, a plea to let him know what people need.
“It’s far from a smooth process but we are trying to piece this together as we go,” he said. “I have received no word about injuries or if anyone from our congregation is among the fatalities. It’s frustrating but predictable. None of us are surprised. Getting information is problematic.”
It’s expected the church campus will need extensive work in the weeks and months ahead, but no word yet as to when inspections can be made to determine the extent of the damage.
Boyea and the Sanibel church office manager are now working out of Fort Myers Congregational UCC as they hunt for a temporary space in which to hold services.
Carolyn Martin, the moderator of that Fort Myers church, has been keeping track of things from afar. She and her husband evacuated to the Fort Lauderdale area and are still there.
“There is a skylight in the sanctuary that is gone and there is a lot of debris on the ground,” she said. “The sign from the front of the church is gone. Fort Myers beach is basically gone. How our church has power and water I don’t know, but thank God we do.
“Our office manager’s and our custodian’s houses are damaged. Don’t know if we’ll have power in Cape Coral before Saturday.”
Martin was planning to write a message to her congregation on Wednesday afternoon said the church is planning to hold services on Sunday. The congregation, waiting on an interim pastor to arrive on Oct. 31, is pulling together.
“Everybody is doing the best they can. We have neighbors doing runs to areas that have food and water and bringing it back to folks who need it,” she said. “We are trying to contact people, since we still don’t know if anyone has been hurt. Some of our members in assisted living facilities were moved to Homestead, Fla. I feel helpless being here.”
But Martin is writing emails, keeping her church community in community.
Staying connected is key
And while Boyea said he won’t know what his Sanibel church will need until they “know the status of the church campus,” he’s focused on communication with the congregation and “getting our worship and spiritual offerings up and running to rebuild some sense of community and spiritual sustenance. I’m confident we will do far more to be able to help not just our membership but the community.
“If it wasn’t for my confidence in my lay leaders and the members, I wouldn’t be as calm.”
Ford said that in his “fabulous congregation, the people will pull together as they always have.” And they are not alone.
He said “one of the things that has blown me away” is that “we have been getting phone calls from other churches offering help. The Poor People’s Campaign is offering help. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers reached out to see if we needed anything. The outpouring of support from groups we are connected with — they just reached out.
“It makes me very emotional because they don’t have much to begin with. We have a bond with them, as partners. It’s a mutual love.”
How to give
The United Church of Christ has established a Hurricanes 2022 emergency appeal to help with response and recovery. Florida Conference Minister John Vertigan, in an Oct. 4 message to churches prayed that “the church might have an influence on the healing of lives, the making whole of broken souls, the giving of hope to people who today are feeling rather hopeless and helpless in the face of nature’s fury.”
“Together with God’s help we will get through this,” Boyea said. “It will not be the same, it will be different, but with God leading us we’ll get to a new day.”
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