They were living in a tent with 100 or so other people, all displaced by Hurricane Ike in Galveston Texas. She and her little sister and their mom had lost their home in the storm and they were being sheltered at the Red Cross tent city set up in the aftermath of the third most devastating hurricane in American history.
She couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 years old, blond headed, and dirty. When we walked into the tent she looked at her mom and said “Mommy, there’s the Church!” and then she looked back at us and yelled “Hey Church!” as she waved at us with all her might.
We were International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) Frontline First Responders sent in to work with the American Red Cross and help where we could in dealing with the emotional and spiritual trauma these survivors were obviously dealing with and to help them get back on their feet. As this precious little girl ran up to me and grabbed me around the leg, it struck me harder than at any time since I landed in Houston just why I was over a thousand miles away from my seminary home and my own little girl and wife back in Boston. We were there to be “Church” to hurting people.
Hurricane Ike will likely cost over $27 Billion and see more than 200 lives lost after all is said and done. Many people have commented that they haven’t heard that much about this tragedy on the news or in the newspapers and they are right. Between the Presidential election and the meltdown in the economy, the sadness and devastation in Galveston and along the Texas coast has largely been ignored.
But IOCC was there very early after the hurricane hit, becoming a “hero” to many in Red Cross shelters by providing things like refrigerators for shelters so that insulin could be kept nearby for victims of the storm. IOCC was there to help with supplies and to assist our own Orthodox faithful in the area who had lost everything. And IOCC was there to provide spiritual and emotional support for victims and rescuers alike.
This past summer IOCC, in cooperation with the Salvation Army, conducted two week long training sessions for the purpose of creating quickly deployed Frontline Responder teams, one on the east coast and one on the west coast. I was fortunate to be part of the training conducted at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA. By the end of the week, the trainees had been certified in Crisis Incident Stress Management (CISM), Emotional and Spiritual Care in Disasters, and Pastoral Crisis Intervention. Everyone was very impressed with the training, but no one knew that in just a few short months, we would need to put that training to work.
I and Jim Kyritsis, a fellow seminarian, arrived in Houston on October 11 and began the process of checking in to the Red Cross Headquarters to get our credentials and to set up at our main location in Galveston. We were met by another Holy Cross seminarian, Jacob Saylor, who had been part of the previous team the week before. A local Orthodox Christian family graciously allowed us to use their home in Galveston as our staging area and a place for us to sleep while we were in Texas. From the very first moments in arriving I knew there would be a twin reality – bureaucratic red tape and amazing opportunities to help. Both proved to be true.
Our first order of business was to contact local Houston and Galveston Orthodox parishes to continue the work done by previous Frontline Responder teams. We contacted the Houston parishes and were warmly received at Vespers that Saturday night by the clergy and faithful of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian parish in Houston. Fr. John Salem and Fr. Joseph Huneycutt greeted us and introduced us to the congregation gathered for vespers. The people were amazed and encouraged by the level of support our IOCC had continued to show the people of Houston and Galveston. They thanked us just for being there and shared stories of lost power for two weeks, spoiled food, and other challenges, but each of them were thankful that Houston was spared the real devastation in the Galveston area located about 50 miles from them on the coast of Texas. While at St. George parish, Jacob began the involved process of briefing us on our work in Galveston and just what we could expect.
But nothing prepared us for what we were about to see and hear.
The story is too long to tell in this short article but let me just give you a few snapshots of some incredible stories of sadness and hope.
Our first few days in Galveston were spent doing some work with the local Greek Orthodox parish in Galveston that had been virtually destroyed by the storm. Assumption Greek Orthodox parish had been boarded up for the storm, but that didn’t keep the water out. After parishioners were finally able to get into the church building to assess the damage, they found their church home had been flooded with over five feet of water inside, and, with the power out and no air conditioning, mold had already started covering most of the surfaces of the furniture and other items in the building. The church office was ruined. The water destroyed the carpet and most of the furnishings. Previous teams had worked with another local Orthodox priest, Fr. Serge Veselinovich of St. Constantine and Helen Serbian Orthodox Church in Galveston, to remove the holy vessels and the relics out of the altar. Assumption parish has no priest assigned at this time and is currently served by the Denver Metropolis clergy.
Fr. Serge had asked if we could come and help Tony Speakman, the vice-president of the Assumption parish council, in rescuing as many of the icons as possible in the iconostasis. We met Tony on Monday afternoon and started work. While we were working in the church building, an elderly couple came by to check on their parish home. The gentleman had been a part of the parish as a small boy, and had even grown up to serve as parish council president during his lifetime. This elderly couple was heart-broken to see their parish home ruined by the flood waters and the wife wept as she saw her parish church building. It wasn’t until later we learned that this elderly couple had evacuated the island when told to and had gone to stay with some relatives. Later, when they were allowed to return home, they discovered their own home on the island had been destroyed. These precious people only had three days’ worth of clothes left to them. They had lost everything else. What was touching was to see that they cared more for their church community than their own loss.
Much of our work with the Red Cross was at the shelter in Galveston. This shelter consisted of four large tents, three were dormitories and one was a dining tent. All the tents were air conditioned and the dormitories each housed about 100-150 people. There were two semi-trailers on the grounds- one was a shower facility and one was a laundry facility. The grounds also had about 100 port-a-potties.
I was amazed at how efficient the Red Cross shelter ran. There were medical staff and volunteer staff all coordinated to offer as much assistance as possible, but no matter how hard these tireless volunteers worked, it was impossible to make a tent filled wall to wall with cots feel like anything other than a shelter.
We were not the only representatives of religious groups but we were the only religious representatives wearing the clothes of an Orthodox seminarian – our anterri and school cross. This was our standard clothing while working in the shelters and it was amazing the effect this unambiguous symbol of “church” had. The Red Cross volunteers and the shelter clients had already grown accustomed to seeing men dressed like us since we were the 4th team to be sent to Galveston, and many of the volunteers commented to us that our presence helped keep things calm and civil, which isn’t an easy thing when you get that many people in that particular situation.
We had already been “warned” at Red Cross headquarters that we were not allowed to “proselytize” and, of course, we said we understood that completely. We discovered we didn’t have to say a word. All we did was walk through the tents and the silent witness of the faith was clear. People would come up and ask for prayer, or want to tell their story, or even want to ask us questions about the faith. I was amazed that not once did our attire keep us from serving these people and not once did we run into hostility or rejection. In fact, it opened many more doors than it closed. Jim and I may have been the exception here, since both of us are former police officers.
One shelter story, of many, comes to mind. There was a lady named Margaret who was there in the shelter with her husband. Margaret came up to us and asked us if we could help her find an Episcopal clergyman, since she was Episcopalian. We started calling around until we got the number of a local Episcopal church and get the information she needed. By then Margaret had warmed up to us and just began telling her story. She was manic-depressive, she was a drug addict, and she was confused about life in general. “Would you pray for me and my husband?” We were used to these kinds of requests and Jim and I both took to the habit of keeping a small notepad in our pocket so we could write down the names of those who requested prayer, so I wrote Margaret’s name down, but she insisted she wanted us to pray for her right now. We offered a short prayer asking God to comfort her and to give her the direction she needed. But I felt there was more to do. I asked her “Have you eaten today?” During our training we learned that this is a very important question to ask since many times people in stressful situations, taken out of their regular routines, forget important matters. I also asked if she had taken her medicine today. Both answers were “No.” We got her to the medical section of the tent and then it was off to the dining tent for some food.
By the time it was time for us to leave, Margaret was asking about Orthodoxy, and wanted information about a local Orthodox church in the area.
So many more stories could be told, but I want to leave you with something an African-American gentleman told Jim on our last evening in the shelter. I was talking to another client when this gentleman walked up to Jim and asked if he could speak to him. Jim gave the man his undivided attention and the man told Jim “Thank you for being here. When we see you here in this difficult place, your presence reminds us that God has not forgotten about us.”
Our service in Galveston and Houston for 9 days in October will be something I will remember for the rest of my life, but it won’t be what I did those 9 days. It will be what I gained from people who were hurting, scared, and needy. It will be what I gained by being there with incredible volunteers giving of themselves and then needing somebody to talk to as well. I will remember the honor of simply being present to precious persons and the honor of standing there and observing Christ bring comfort to them through the presence of the Church.
I will remember a little girl excitedly telling her mom “Mommy, the Church is here! Hey Church!”