September 17, 2017 — Rev. Paula Norbert
“Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God.” In Isaiah’s words today, we hear this wonderful reassurance that God is present to God’s people, that for those who are in the midst of storms and turmoil, God is there, saying, “I will strengthen you, I will help you.” In watching the recent images of Hurricane Harvey and the massive flooding in Texas and parts of Louisiana and then so soon after, the destruction by wind and water by Irma which affected so many throughout the Caribbean and Florida, I think we are all at a loss about how to respond. We share the fear and the anguish of those who have been affected and we gather today holding them in our hearts and in our prayers. Let us pray, O Lord of all hopefulness, we ask that you be with us this day as we seek your guidance, your inspiration, and your comfort. Be with us and lead us to the ways in which we may be present to those most in need.” Amen.
Like many of you, I have watched the coverage of these storms feeling quite overwhelmed and filled with a variety of feelings. Our hearts ache for those who have lost loved ones and we are deeply saddened by the loss of so many homes and precious possessions. How could this have happened? Many of us know people who were affected by one of the storms. My own family has watched with great concern as my cousin and her 11 year old son live on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands where there has been extensive damage. I know there are a number of families in this church who have loved ones and homes in Florida or other places that were in the path of the storm.
And how do we begin to think about what it means to see more frequent and intense storms, rising sea waters, melting of glaciers. What then must we do about the warming of our planet? These are big issues that must be tackled and soon.
While I have never personally lived through a storm of this magnitude, I was thinking of a time years ago when I was working with college students preparing for a Spring Break trip to Nicaragua. Back in October of 1998, as we were planning for our big trip, we heard about a terrible Hurricane that struck Central America. Hurricane Mitch was the second deadliest hurricane in recorded history. Over a period of several days, this hurricane dropped historic amounts of rainfall in Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, with unofficial reports of up to 75 inches. The deaths due to this catastrophic flooding in countries without good infrastructure and modestly built homes made it the second deadliest Atlantic hurricane in history after the Great Hurricane of 1780; nearly 11,000 people were killed with over 11,000 left missing by the end of 1998. Roughly 2.7 million were left homeless and, the flooding caused extreme damage throughout the area. It’s difficult to even imagine such distruction.
We knew people in one of the affected communities as we had traveled to the same rural village over several years and we had a connection with the people there and so as our group met, we struggled with how to respond. One of the important questions we pondered is whether we should actually take the money raised for the trip and send it to the people there. We asked the trip organizers in the country to visit the people and ask what they wanted us to do and how we might be of help, and they came back with an answer. The community said that they still wanted us to come. The students did end up taking up collections at the college for hurricane relief and so we were able to bring a sizable donation of funds as well as medical supplies with us when we went in March of that year.
I recall that our travel was very difficult when we arrived in the country. If the roads were bumpy and dusty during other visits, that visit the roads were awful and nearly impossible to navigate. But we arrived and we spent much of our time listening. The people in the community had so many stories to share. They cried as they told us about clinging to treetops, holding their babies in their arms and about how they had survived by rationing the limited food and water in the village. For more than a month, they had eaten nothing more than a tortilla and salt per day with little clean drinking water. It was a miracle that they had survived, but they helped one another out and they came through it, by supporting one another and by their absolute belief that God was with them in their suffering and struggle. It meant something to them to have us come and be with them, walk with them, and let them tell us how they had come through this ordeal and trauma. I suppose the most important thing we were able to offer was our presence, our witness to their stories and their pain. We were able to sit with them during such a painful time. And as I’ve learned myself over many years, sometimes showing up is the most important thing we can do when someone has been through a significant loss or time of great sorrow.
In Texas and Florida, we have seen amazing stories of people helping other people, of first responders and ordinary folks risking their lives, and in some cases, giving their lives in their desire to help their neighbors. I recall one particularly moving story in Texas where a mother, after having been separated for several days, was reunited with her five children along the side of what looked like a riverbank. The kids were yelling out to her as the boat drew closer and the mother, who looked soaking wet and bedraggled, just wept and wept, saying “God is good. God is good.” She was overjoyed to be with her family again. For so many who have been separated from families, from neighbors, from beloved pets, their first hope is to reconnect with those they love, those who care about them. On one of the islands in the Caribbean, I saw photos of a list which had been put up in a central location where people had written their names. While they couldn’t reach out by cell phone with the lines down, someone had posted those pictures to assure others that their loved ones were alive. I am sure there are still many who are waiting for that news, and it is very hard. The road ahead is long, and we wonder if we can make any difference.
We want to be people of hope, even in the face of so much that causes us fear and anxiety each day, from our own lives to news in the world. I believe that the hope we seek is not one that says that nothing bad will happen to us or to those we love. It is a hope in which we believe that God is still at work in the world and even works through us. In her book Becoming Wise, religious journalist Krista Tippett says that hope “has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth. . . . Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be.”
And so, we might ask ourselves what it is that helps nurture hope in our hearts and lives? What are the things that diminish or undermine our capacity to be hopeful and how might we allow more space for the practices that enrich us as a community and help us to not only be hopeful, but to put our hope into action? I sincerely believe that through prayer and worship, through conversation and community and through our actions, God is with us, leading us from fear to hope. We have to find time in our days to hear that voice of God, speaking to us…”Do not be afraid, I will strengthen you.”
As a church community, we seek ways to nurture hope in one another, and to be hopeful when someone is feeling hopeless. How might we bring hope to our brothers and sisters who are suffering this day after these hurricanes? We know we cannot do it all, but we can do something; we can begin to move from fear to hope and help others to do that. Our Mission Board met last week, and we are mindful that people are seeking ways to be of help. Many of you have perhaps already found ways to be of assistance or to send support to organizations on the ground. As a community, we thought we might be able to put together a list of five organizations spread out across Texas, the Caribbean and Florida where we might be able to direct some donations to reliable groups that are seeking to reach out on the very local level in some way.
If some of you have a contact to a local church or food bank in one of the affected areas where you think we could safely direct funds, we would love to compile a short list and then over the coming weeks, collect funds which would be split between several groups. We know there are many possibilities, but if you have a good local contact, please be in touch with me or with Ken Murray, chair of Mission?
As Psalm 46 reminds us, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” May we be present to one another in our fear and live as people of hope as we move forward.