Pastoring after the Storm

by Gwen Groff, Bethany,

Hurricane Irene
Route 100 in Plymouth, Vermont after Tropical Storm Irene tore through the region. Photo by Brandon Bergey.

A friend told me a story about a minister who went down to the train station every morning to watch the trains pass. Finally someone asked why he did this. Was he considering throwing himself in front of one of them? Was he wishing he could hop on one and get out of town? Was he praying for the people as they passed through? The minister said, “I just love to see something moving that I don’t have to push.”

Although I’m not much of a pusher, I can sometimes identify with the desire to see movement for which I’m not responsible. But the community response to Tropical Storm Irene, which hit Vermont on Sunday, August 28, 2011, was a moving train I was not pushing. Instead I felt I was running to catch up with what was already on the move.

I was out of town when the storm hit. My husband Robert and I were at the beach in Maine celebrating our 20th anniversary when Irene poured eight inches of rain on our town and washed away roads, bridges, power lines, homes and land.

In Maine the seas were high but we saw little rain or storm damage. We were oblivious to Irene’s impact until we happened to meet some other Vermonters on the beach who told us that our governor had declared a state of emergency. We started paying attention to the news and trying to phone home. We couldn’t reach the friends who were keeping our kids but our neighbors told us not to bother trying to come home early. The roads to our house were closed and the road between us and our children was washed away.

I called our neighbors to ask how they were doing. When I talked with one member of the family she said, “It’s like a war zone here. No power, boulders in the middle of lawns, houses washed under the bridge up the road . . .” When I talked with her husband, he said, “It’s like a big party here. There’s no power so we’ve got the grill going, there’s lots of stuff thawing in the freezer we need to eat up . . .”

When we got home on Tuesday, we started seeing the damage in our neighborhood and hearing the extent of the damage in our small state. Five people drowned, 1400 were driven from their homes. Two hundred bridges were damaged and 530 miles of roads shut down.

With power still out and roads around us yet closed, we had little to do but walk around to our neighbors and see what needed to be done. Some people immediately got busy coordinating relief supplies and equipment. We were asked if we could use the church vestibule as a distribution point, but it soon became clear we’d need a bigger space, and the Grange (town) hall next door became the local hub of activity.

I was slow to catch up with what my role should be in this situation. I mostly listened a lot as people shared their stories. When electricity was restored I baked bread and took it to neighbors who had been evacuated and people who were cleaning mud out of their basements. Many were sorting and drying out their possessions.

Several people suggested Bethany have a special service. Vermont is a notoriously secular state, and only one other time—after 9/11—did people in this community ask for a worship service. But the week after Irene several people said they would like time to come together and pray. One person from the community suggested that we have a Eucharist but use water instead of the usual elements. Water is what caused us so much trauma. But water is also what we most needed, clean water to drink, water to wash our hands and shower and flush, water to cleanse the contaminated soil.

So we gathered and sang and prayed and had a water ritual. I had planned several readings and songs to follow the ritual, but sharing the water was the start of people sharing stories, and that went on for more than an hour. People didn’t want to leave.

Mennonites are used to being the experts in relief and disaster services. Motivated by our faith, we are good at helping. But after Irene we saw everyone helping their neighbors. Who knew so many Vermonters had heavy equipment stashed in their sheds? People in our town joyfully brought out whatever big rig they had and repaired roads, built makeshift bridges, refortified river banks, and removed debris. One neighbor said, “They’re like boys playing in a sandbox.”

People became more expressive of their compassion. Neighbors who normally barely waved at each other had conversations and came into each other’s houses and helped sort through one another’s chaos. Neighbors in isolated pockets shared meals and water, sump pumps and generators. In this community of independent, self-sufficient Vermonters, people gave and accepted help.

For some, fear lingers. The sound of water brings anxiety. And many people are exhausted by the process of haggling with insurance companies and FEMA. But the community has become more kind and connected, and there is no turning around that train.