Tag Archives: Natural Disaster

Still a place of storm

by Stephen Kriss, Director of Communication and Leadership Cultivation

Steve KrissIn July I traveled with a group of four Eastern Mennonite Seminary students to bear witness to Mennonite Central Committee’s ministry of presence in New Orleans, now nearly a decade after Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaks that have reshaped the city.

Pam Nath, formerly a professor at Bluffton (Ohio) University, has served as MCC Central States representative in New Orleans since this more recent initiative began, building upon a generation of MCC presence that had a brief hiatus in the years before the storm.

Nath graciously opened her network of relationships with locals working toward justice and hope in this complex process of rebuilding a city.

New Orleans is a distinct place in the American soul and landscape, reflecting earlier French and Spanish rule. It’s unique in architecture, geography and racial-ethnic mix.

Before arriving, we tried to acquaint ourselves with the city’s history. We learned about the immigrant groups who built the city. More recent waves of Vietnamese found it to feel a lot like the Mekong Delta.

We glimpsed stories of slave trade and the city’s ruthless marketplace that separated families. At the same time, the Code Noir devised by the French was considered a “kinder, gentler form of slavery.” The city is full of complexity, complicity, and contradiction.

We watched Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke and readily carried the visuals of thousands of people stranded at the Superdome, others marooned in their attics as flood waters rose. Locals were quick to point out it wasn’t the storm that nearly destroyed the city. Instead, levees and seawalls failed in dozens of locations, allowing water to pour into low-lying neighborhoods, flooding up to 80 percent of the city.

Listening to storm survivor stories is tough, recognizing this part-natural and part-human catastrophe. But far more agonizing were the ongoing stories of racial aggression and the contempt evident in patterns of civic behavior that undermine the flourishing of the city’s black majority population. One student said she frequently wanted to scream as we listened. The stories were so consistent, so prevalent, that many we spoke to had come to best understand the situation as a combination of storming and conspiring forces with seemingly faceless people dictating maneuvers.

The listening was exhausting. We came to recognize patterns of trauma in those we encountered.

I’ve traveled further to listen to people tell the difficult stories of oppression and conspiring forces before.

But these New Orleans stories were as intense and difficult as I’ve heard from anywhere in the world. In some ways, the listening was more disconcerting because we were still in the U.S.

Hard listening in New Orleans made us all wonder where those hidden stories might be closer to home.

We wondered whether we were missing similar struggles next door or down the block. My guess is that we are.

I wonder what it would take to have the kind of courage, time prioritization, and wherewithal to find them out and to bear witness more regularly with the neighbors near at hand. My guess is that hearing even closer to home will be even more difficult.

I suspect, uncomfortably, that in not listening and not knowing, we become silent conspirators for those under the heavy weight of ongoing struggle.

This article first appeared in Mennonite World Review. Reposted with permission. 

Hurricane Sandy leaves destruction and opportunity

by Emily Ralph, eralph@franconiaconference.org

Three days after Hurricane Sandy swept through south-eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, members of Franconia Conference are still cleaning up from massive flooding, downed trees and power lines, and extensive power outages.

Communication has been challenging and reports are trickling in–entire communities are still without power, dealing with road closures, and running short on supplies as gas stations and grocery stores are also without electricity.

Some of the reports we have heard:

  • Power is still out at Deep Run East (Perkasie, Pa.), Doylestown (Pa.), Swamp (Quakertown, Pa.), Methacton (Norristown, Pa.) and Garden Chapel (Dover, NJ) facilities.
  • Most of the Garden Chapel congregation is without power, although there have been no reports of damage to homes or the church building.
  • Methacton had and continues to have flooding in their basement/fellowship hall.  Without electricity, they are unable to pump the water out.
  • Many members of congregations along the Rte. 113 corridor around Souderton, Pa., are without power, as are the Conference Center offices and the Souderton Center, which is owned by Franconia Conference.  Penn View Christian School—the site of next weekend’s Conference Assembly—is also without electricity.   These power outages extend as far north as Allentown and as far east as the Delaware River.
  • Despite reports of wider damage in Philadelphia, Franconia congregations in the city survived the hurricane mostly unscathed.
Zume after Hurricane Sandy
Ben Walter, Ripple (right), and his housemates at the Zume House intentional community in Allentown, hosted their “power-less” neighbors for dinner the night after the hurricane. Luke Martin, Vietnamese Gospel, was among the guests.

In the midst of such wide-spread destruction, conference congregations are finding opportunities to minister to one another and their communities:

  • A young mother at Doylestown congregation made meals and delivered them to members of her congregation who were without power.
  • Salford (Harleysville, Pa.) congregation, once their own electricity was restored, opened their facilities to anyone in the community who needed heat, bathrooms, clean water, or a place to plug in their electronic devices.  They also expanded their weekly Community Meal to include those who needed a hot dinner.
  • Individuals throughout the region have opened their homes to friends and neighbors without power, delivered supplies to those who are stuck at home because of blocked roads, and brought their chainsaws to aid in the cleanup.
  • Members of Ripple Allentown (Pa.) who were without power met at their pastors’ home for a meal and to “warm up a bit,” reported Carolyn Albright. “It was a holy, blessed time together.”

Noah Kolb, Pastor of Ministerial Leadership for Franconia Conference, received two emails from conference congregations encouraging members to share their resources with others in their congregation and neighborhoods.  “Often we try to get beyond these things to get to the work of church,” Kolb reflected, “but this IS church.  This is really the stuff of church.”

Because of the challenges of communication, conference staff has not been able to contact all conference congregations to learn of current conditions, needs, and relief efforts.  If you have any information, please report it to your LEADership Minister or any member of conference staff—don’t assume that the staff already know about it.

If your congregation and neighborhood has made it through relatively unscathed, please check in with other congregations in your region to see how you can help; also consider how your congregation’s facility or aid can help the greater community.

If you are aware of relief efforts or needs, please report these to conference staff so that they can connect needs with resources.  The conference email and phones are up and running.

On Monday, as the hurricane was approaching, Michael King, a member of Salford and the dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary (Harrisonburg, Va.), sent out an email to seminary students and staff.  “I don’t know precisely how we theologize at a time like this,” King wrote.  “Jesus teaches that the rain falls on the just and the unjust and that tragedies are not signs that we’re out of God’s favor. The Bible is also rich with images of God’s care, of God as the mother who shelters us under tender wings.  My loved ones, your loved ones, and all of us are in my heart and prayers amid the yearnings for God’s shelter.”

Tropical storm damage in Vermont is a ‘disaster’

By Sheldon C. Good, sheldon@mennoweekly.org
Mennonite Weekly Review

What is usually a small brook washed out this section of Route 100 in Plymouth, Vt., home of Bethany Birches Camp. — Photo by Brandon Bergey

Flood waters due to Tropical Storm Irene were subsiding by Sept. 6, but extensive devastation remained as cleanup and repairs began for Mennonites across Vermont, including some who were isolated for days.

The storm weakened as it made its way along the Atlantic sea­board the last weekend of August but dropped several inches of rain in just a few hours in many places.

In Vermont, raging rivers washed out hundreds of roads and damaged dozens of bridges.

More than a dozen Vermont towns, including Plymouth, home to the Mennonite-affiliated Bethany Birches Camp, became virtual islands.

“We are in the midst of a disaster,” said Randy Good, pastor of Taftsville Chapel Mennonite Fellowship, on Sept. 1, after the storm had pased. “Close by, people have lost their homes and businesses. We are continuing to become aware of the magnitude of things, and as we do, it is getting worse.”

Good and Gwen Groff, pastor of Bethany Mennonite Church, accounted for all of their members, though some evacuated their homes. Both meetinghouses as well as Bethany Birches Camp sustained little damage.

More than 60 percent of the 450 miles of Vermont state roads that were closed have reopened, The Wall Street Journal reported Sept. 5.

Still, some roads remained closed. According to Google Crisis Response, parts of the main road that runs between the camp and the Bethany congregation were only open to authorized vehicles.

“Franconia Conference communities in?Vermont seem to be at the center of some of the most extensive damage,” said Stephen Kriss, director of communication for Franconia Mennonite Conference.

On Aug. 30, National Guard helicopters airlifted food, water and supplies to isolated towns, including Plymouth.The storm killed three people in Vermont and at least 55 total. Preliminary estimates put total losses along the East Coast at about $7 billion.

Brandon Bergey, executive director of Bethany Birches Camp, was using his motorcycle to get around.

He said most towns were setting up relief stations where people could get gas, food and water.

The local community, Bergey said, is drawing closer together.

“In a rural area like ours, it’s not always easy to connect with neighbors; now it’s easier,” he said.

“The destruction that will cost us a lot of work and discomfort — and for some, homes and most possessions — is helping us build relationships.”

Groff, pastor of the Bethany congregation, lives with her family in a parsonage next to the church. Though it sits along the Ottauquechee River, which overflowed its banks, the Groffs’ home received minimal damage.

Route 4, the main road between the Bethany and Taftsville congregations, will be closed for months, Good said.

“Some roadways that seemed passable have been found to have caves washed out underneath the roadway, and some have collapsed,” he said.

Dennis Bricker of Chambersburg, Pa., removes debris at Lennard DeWolfe’s home in Forkston, Pa. — Photo by Wilmer Martin

Six people from Franconia Conference congregations volunteered with MDS in Vermont Sept. 5-8. They removed debris and sorted through damaged buildings.

“The primary effort right now is simply getting wet materials out of homes,” said volunteer Ted Houser of Lancaster, Pa.

Houser noted the timeliness of their service: Mennonites worked on storm cleanup on Labor Day in Vermont, Pennsylvania and New York.

MDS executive director Kevin King said the organization is conducting assesments for long-term needs.?He said relief work in Vermont is “a challenge because of all the infrastructure that’s been destroyed.”

In other storm damage, the basement of New Beginnings Community Church of Bristol, Pa., a Franconia Conference congregation, flooded due to the recent storm.

Ertell Whigham, executive minister of Franconia Conference, said the church lost all of its educational resources, including computers.

Originally posted in Mennonite Weekly Review, September 1, 2011 and updated on September 6.  Reposted by permission.