Do we really need a hurricane?

October 31, 2004

Since august, our newspapers and televisions screens have been filled with images showing palm trees snapped in two like pencils and houses ripped from their foundations and hurled hundreds of feet through the air as if they were toys. We have seen trailers and mobile homes reduced to rubble and cars submerged under water. The unprecedented series of hurricanes this autumn that mercilessly buffeted Florida, Alabama and the Caribbean have caused death and massive destruction.

Many months ago, I was invited to the convention of the Diocese of Southwest Florida. After their fourth hurricane, I was not surprised when an e-mail arrived informing me that the hotel Phoebe and I were to stay in was no longer inhabitable. The message came not without a certain dark humor. I was told that the "penthouse" that had been set aside for us was now an open-air patio on the ground floor, and other arrangements were necessary. Knowing of the severe losses sustained by the neighboring Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, we made arrangements to visit there as well. I was grateful for the opportunity to represent the care and concern of our church for those who have suffered so grievously.

Again and again I heard words of deep appreciation for the prompt response of Episcopal Relief and Development. People across our church have responded quickly and with wonderful generosity. Gratitude also was expressed for the prompt and sensitive response of our Church Pension Group, which insures most of the church buildings affected by the storms.

In the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, I presided and preached at the Sunday liturgy at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Gulf Breeze. As I looked out upon the congregation, I thought of how many of them had suffered greatly, including their bishop. The word "endure" -- which occurred twice in the epistle reading for the day -- seemed to fit the moment and to describe where many found themselves.

In spite of the signs of progress I saw, as rubble was being piled by roadsides and the temporary blue plastic roofing was being replaced by fresh shingles, recovery is going to be slow and difficult. In spite of the external appearance of returning order, the internal scars of trauma and loss will take a very long time to heal. Endurance in the days ahead will be required, in full measure and then some.

However, what we found in both Southwest Florida and the Central Gulf Coast was an amazingly resilient community of clergy and laity who, often in spite of their own losses and traumas, were able to reach out to others. Almost everyone we talked to said how important it was for them, once the storms subsided, to attend church. They needed to give thanks for their own safety and equally to connect with others in their congregations and be assured that they were safe.

It also became clear that those who will have the most difficulty recovering from what has occurred, in addition to the ill and the elderly, are those who had the least to start with. Some who lived on the hard edges of society in marginal housing that was uninsured escaped with their lives and little more. Their plight has inspired a number of congregations working ecumenically to address not only the immediate needs but also the underlying causes. One priest observed that, as terrible as it all has been, what has happened also opens the way to addressing a number of community concerns that had been less visible before the storms hit.

What struck me, too, were the webs of relationship these terrible storms have made obvious. I saw one example at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Punta Gorda. The children in the church's day school have received letters and drawings and banners from children in Episcopal schools in other parts of the country expressing their love. The chaplain told me that the children have an expanded awareness of being part of a community of children just like themselves at our schools across the country.

Again and again, the people we met spoke of the outpouring of prayer, concern and tangible assistance that had come from congregations and dioceses well beyond the reaches of the storms. Several spoke about the intense sense of community the storms had unleashed. "If only our congregation could always be this way," one priest observed. "This has changed my ministry ... how much more I appreciate all the members of my congregation. I want to stay this way."

One rector in a hard-hit area remarked that, at the end of the day, despite the horror, the experiences of these days also had been "spiritually uplifting." Another said, "This is what the church is all about, and it is in times such as these that the gospel is truly lived."

After listening to these voices, I find myself praying that we will not need hurricanes and other disasters to remind us who we are called to be. I pray we will remember that we are to bear one another's burdens, and in so doing experience Christ more profoundly in our midst.