On Saturday, November 3, conference staffers Steve Kriss and Emily Ralph joined Mennonite Disaster Service in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens to assess the damage left by Hurricane Sandy and identify needs in preparation for sending teams to aid in the cleanup. After returning home, Steve compiled this list of recollections, appreciation, and observations.
1. Mounds of garbage in Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens. And the realization that this is not ordinary trash, but people’s possessions, the stories of their lives in discarded items that had held either purposeful or sentimental value only a few days earlier.
2. Overflowing generosity that meant that the church we were visiting had to stop receiving donations by the end of the day because they had too much. Oasis Christian Center (formed out of the merger of two congregations including a former member congregation of Lancaster Conference) transformed its sanctuary into a distribution center piled high with clothing, water, food, cleaning supplies.
3. We passed by a large 4×4 truck and saw some guys who were gutting an entire house. I commented that this was the right kind of truck to have this week. I asked if we could take a photo of the owner with the truck. He insisted that the whole work crew gather around the truck and that we share the photo with them.
4. New York City is beautiful; the mix of skyline, bridges, architecture, water, and people is stunning even when it’s a mess. Why would people live here? Because it’s so beautiful and energizing, frustrating and amazing.
5. People took what they had and shared it with each other—setting up food tables on the sidewalk, serving meals out of their car. A group of Latino women made sandwiches and soup and told us, “We are poor, but we can help too.” Members of New York’s Sikh community brought their vegetarian meals to the streets rather than keeping them at their temples as would be the norm. We had amazing conversation and curry with basmati rice together while we discussed the community leader’s fascination with Lancaster County. Meanwhile a boy from the community was repeatedly yelling, “Free good hot food!” It was almost like communion.
6. We walked to one of the worst hit areas of Midland Beach where two elderly neighbor women had drowned in their homes. There were flower memorials outside of their homes and buried in the mud we spotted a copy of The Purpose Driven Life.
7. On Facebook, I posted that I’d be driving my pickup truck to Staten Island. Within 24 hours it was filled with donations given in love from Mennonite friends in Philadelphia and another friend loaned me a car so I could leave my truck with friends in Staten Island. I loaded up the truck at night almost to the hilt, but came out to leave in the morning to discover that my neighbors had topped off the load with more bottled water while I slept. I returned that evening to find my yard cleaned and raked from the storm thanks to my other neighbors.
8. We headed out with a Mennonite Disaster Service assessment team to the Rockaways. The entire boardwalk had been lifted off the cement pilings and pushed back into houses. One family reclaimed the boardwalk now as their beachfront deck and set up umbrellas and chairs along with a sign that said, “Rockaway Forever.”
9. While we walked in the neighborhoods, I kept getting sand in my mouth as the wind kicked up. I want to remember the grit of it in my teeth, the sensation of the storm both outside and within me.
10. I was overwhelmed by hope in my encounters with people all day who reflected the Incarnation–the love of the Creator made Real–handing out peanut butter sandwiches, quietly cleaning neighbors’ homes, translating issues in Spanish, Russian, Hindi, offering hamburgers fresh off the grill to passing vehicles, gracious and committed first responders, plain-dressed Mennonite women who kept relief efforts moving efficiently, a woman driving around clean and dry socks to neighbors who were cleaning out their homes.
The human response to the situation was amazingly hopeful despite the challenges of cleaning up, rebuilding. Fourteen-year-old Zach who went along with us remarked, “I wasn’t surprised by the destruction. I was surprised by people smiling in the midst of it all.” People like Zach, who wanted to come along with his big sister, photographer Emily, and my Methodist pastor friend Christine from New Jersey, who told the stories of what she saw on Saturday to her worshiping community the next morning while choking back tears, remind me that the power of the Christian story is that it is comedy over tragedy, not death but resurrection.
If you are from southeastern Pennsylvania and you would like to join a Mennonite Disaster Service team going to Staten Island, contact Rick Kratz, 267-372-4637. Outside PA, contact the MDS representative in your congregation. If you would like schedule your own team, contact Judy Roes, New York volunteer coordinator, 717-823-3020. Facebook gallery of photos from Saturday’s trip.