Superstorm Sandy caused extensive damage to Long Beach Island, N.J., a barrier island on the Atlantic Ocean, home to the Province’s St. Francis of Assisi Parish. In the months following the storm, friars struggled to minister to displaced parishioners scattered across the coast. In part two of this reflection, Stephen Kluge, OFM, recounts the months after the storm and his time as a pastor without a church. Part one of this reflection was published May 28.
Looking back at these events and how I remember them, I can say that I have never felt so ineffectual, lonely, and powerless in all of my ministerial life, especially as a pastor.
At my installation as pastor, I remember saying that I see my job as consisting of two main components: to teach and to protect the Franciscan identity of the parish. After Superstorm Sandy, I suddenly found myself confronted by questions: Teach whom, since most parishioners were in parts unknown? Teach how, since there were widespread power outages? Teach what, since we, as ministers, are not used to being in need of support ourselves? Furthermore, I irrationally felt that since I hadn’t protected the people of the parish against the storm, I had failed. Who was I as pastor without a church or a congregation?
‘Sowing Seeds into the Wind’
I remember sending e-mails of encouragement to staff, and asking them to pass them on to friends. I remember Jim Scullion, OFM, starting the parish Facebook page, hoping people would find it, find some hope in the daily reflections and find each other. The reflections, while focused on that day’s Gospel, tried to give hope and a name to the experience we were living through. In the face of the devastation, this seemed so small; like sowing seeds into the wind and hoping some would land on good soil.
I realized how blessed the friars were when we found a house off the island to rent. We were able to live in community when so many were displaced. But I was still unsettled, even though the discipline of prayer, Mass and community meals gave a structure to my days. It seemed there was so much to do, and that so many others were doing, while I was only offering words of encouragement in cyberspace, or a small presence on the island, when I could.
I understood that one point of the beatitudes is that God is with us when we are poor, or poor in spirit, meek, hungry for food or holiness, pure of heart, mourning or persecuted. We who were affected by Sandy were all of that and more. And God was with us. But as the days dragged into weeks, and weeks into months, I began to see that this God-with-us of the beatitudes was taking on the flesh of those who, despite their own loss, chose to help each other. They chose not to be imprisoned by their own sense of loss and disorientation. Rather, they chose to be part of a larger suffering community, and, more than that, they chose to bring healing to others while they themselves needed healing.
I tried to communicate even the small victories as our main church was gutted and began to be repaired: “the new floor is in, the wiring is completed.” But rebuilding is a slow process. Those who did not suffer much because of the storm began to complain, much like the Hebrews in the desert after leaving slavery in Egypt. I saw my role as protector of our maintenance staff, who were doing most of the work, as well as reminding people of how happy and fortunate we were to be back on the island in one of our churches that wasn’t damaged.
The experience of Superstorm Sandy only strengthened the relationship among us. Friars and sisters, used to giving help and relief, were like the people we serve — in need of help and relief. Looking back as pastor, I see my task was to acknowledge the devastation we had lived through, as well as to remind us all of the presence of God during that time. It was my responsibility to acknowledge the hard work we were doing, the fighting for insurance money, and that it was normal to feel what we were feeling and to remind people of God’s presence, especially through our communion with one another.
My parishioners struggled with vulnerability and a sense of disorientation. I felt so protective of them, particularly during Mass when our singing, prayer responses, and ministries were hesitant. I was also called to offer a nearby hope, that through our hard work and patient endurance, we would get through this together.
My prayers for them were much like those after Sept. 11. If things got to be too much and they felt they could no longer carry those burdens, they were to ask God to lift them from themselves and to give them to me. I was to be their priest and their victim. I hope I became for them a shoulder to cry on, a welcoming embrace, an ear for listening, and a voice of encouragement and hope.
Pastor is more than a title, a function or a role. Being pastor is a unique relationship with people, that no disaster or distance can diminish. Being pastor is acknowledging that I am only an earthen vessel and that the surpassing greatness of any power or good done will be from God and not from myself. While being pastor is a unique relationship, the good news is that I never felt alone thanks to the support of the friars I lived with. All of us, clergy and laity alike, living through this were “afflicted…but not crushed, but not despairing…struck down but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 7-9).
All of us in the faith community of St. Francis on Long Beach Island suffered together. We cried with one another. We rebuilt and rejoiced with one another after each task was completed. We reopened together and we rejoiced. There is still much work to complete, and we can never go back to before. But I don’t think we want to go back. At least I don’t. For I see that the storm and its aftermath made me more united with the people I serve than I ever thought possible. With God beside us, together as a parish rich in faith and love, we live the present and, with great hope, face the future stronger than any storm.
— Fr. Stephen had been pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish from 2006 to this January. The first part of his reflection appeared in the May 28 issue of HNP Today.