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Just to be clear, beer and gasoline is not what this post is about, although they do make an appearance in what I’d like to relate.
This past weekend I attended a Holiday Cocktail Party at the home of some of my parishioners. It was a nice event, nothing too fancy, but festive with friends and family and neighbors. There, this guy Rob approached me and said, “I want to thank you, Pastor, for what you and the church have done.” He was quite sincere. Now, let me tell you a little bit about Rob. He’s a former NYPD detective who now works for a federal agency. He’s the no nonsense type, maybe a bit of a tough guy at times, and certainly a straight shooter, “tells it as it is” sort. His wife, a practicing Roman Catholic, and teenage children help out with Trinity’s vacation bible school each summer. Wonderful volunteers. But Rob doesn’t really have a place for religion or faith in his life. To him, God is a nonentity. All that said, Rob and his lack of belief isn’t really what this post is about either.
Rob and his family live in a part of New York City called Howard Beach in Queens, generally a middle class neighborhood with many single-family homes. Inland from the coast but situated north of Jamaica Bay, it was affected quite drastically by Superstorm Sandy. Located in what the City has labeled as Zone B, an area defined with “potential flooding from a Category 2+ hurricane,” Rob and his family and his neighbors were not instructed to evacuate. Nonetheless, when the tidewaters surged from the downgraded tropical storm, their entire neighborhood was inundated. The first floor of their home had almost four feet of water. Almost everything beneath that height was ruined. The family also lost both of their vehicles in the storm. Although again, the storm and its disaster isn’t really what this post is about.
Fortunately, while their home did experience significant damage, structurally it was sound and its foundation remained secure. And even more importantly, all Rob’s family members were safe, as well as his in-laws who lived a few blocks away. It would be revealed later that many in the region were not so fortunate. In the days, weeks, (and going on months now) since the storm, relief and recovery has been a process. Initially, the family attempted to save that which was under the water, to dry and to clean what could be salvaged. And then there was the issue of gaining transportation—replacing their vehicles being in a part of the city where those are necessary. Locating rental cars was no small challenge when thousands of others are in a similar situation, not to mention the gas shortage that followed. Eventually reconnecting the electric power, getting heat, demolition and rehab. But in the immediate days following the storm it was issues of food and water, warmth, and security in and for the premises. But again, this isn’t really what this post is about.
This post is really what it means to be Christian, to be a follower of Christ, and what the purpose of the church is. For it is easy for many of us, especially me as a minister to sometimes have blinders on and get tunnel vision. We focus a lot on “church” and all that that entails that it’s easy to miss what it’s really all about. Even in phenomenally great ministries that churches do in providing assistance like food pantries and kitchens and shelters or of that growing movement (or whatever the appropriate term for it now) of being “missional,” meeting people where they are, meeting needs…it still can sometimes be about “the church.” That’s not so bad. These are good things! But…
I know folks even in my own congregation who may not be able to participate in these ministries or missional opportunities. And that is ok, too. Especially when I hear of the teacher who goes above and beyond tending to the needs of some severely at risk youth. Or the social worker who went out of her way to find shelter for a domestic abuse situation. Or the elderly congregant who regularly volunteers as a teacher’s aid. Or the one teaching ESL classes, or rescuing animals, or transporting some learning disabled neighbors, or…and the list goes on. I suppose this is all simply discipleship. Or maybe vocation. But it truly is the church being church wherever the church goes. And in particular, outside of the walls of the church building.
In the days and weeks following the storm I heard story after story of people doing just that. One of the best included one of our church families delivering blankets and coats that our congregation had collected for another project to storm victims—this was an official church mission and an organized service. But this same family, while delivering on the Rockaways also gave away their can of gasoline to a family walking to get gas—just gave it to them to power their generator a little longer. They also dropped off a case of beer to the brave firefighters and emergency responders of the local firehouse.
And people did laundry, and cooked meals, and shared hospitality, and opened their homes, and dropped off kids, and looked in on neighbors and the list goes on.
Now, none of this is to argue against organized recovery efforts which are much needed and which the faith community is integral. But it’s also incredibly encouraging to see our church members being church especially outside of the church building.
As Rob and I spoke at the cocktail party on how fortunate his family has been even amidst the storm and destruction and about the care they have received I commented, “thank God you have all been ok and we’ve been able to help when needed.” He chuckled and agreed, “you know, you’re right,” and he agreed, “thank God.”
Attached is a video made by my friend and colleague upstate, the Rev. Greg Town following the flooding from Hurricane Irene last summer. Just to share how devatstating these storms have been.