After the Storm
Hot meals and prayer have always been mainstays at the United Methodist Center in Far Rockaway, N.Y., but after Hurricane Sandy, volunteer and longtime United Methodist Women member Marie Davis knew the need in the hard-hit Queens, N.Y., area would be even more severe. Shortly after the storm swept out of the area, Ms. Davis, who oversees the center’s Sunday worship service, and United Methodist Women members Carolyn Roebuck and Judith McRae went to the center.
The center had no electrical power, but at least it suffered no physical damage. Nearby stores were closed, and food and basic necessities were not available. Many area residents had no heat or electricity. The center staff and volunteers soon began giving out the food on hand and new donations.
Ms. Davis, director of outreach ministries for the center and a member of the Springfield Gardens United Methodist Women, said people from less affected areas kept arriving in cars and trucks bringing canned goods, clothing, diapers, wipes and blankets.
“We worked in partnership with the Red Cross, FEMA, the police and United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). The Muslim mosque next door prepared food and brought it here. We had become one of the ‘go to’ places for people needing help.
“One day two of us cooked two big pots of soup at home and brought it. We heated it on gas burners, and we set up outside. With the donations of food that were arriving, we were able to provide a takeout container with a hot meal.”
Ms. Roebuck, also from Springfield Gardens United Methodist Women, described the experience: “I felt it was the right thing to do, to be there helping. I was giving back. When there was need, God provided a place. I didn’t have electricity in my home for some days. We had to throw out some food, but it was nothing like this.”
The next week area women made fried chicken for the center. A Springfield Gardens member cleaned and seasoned the chicken, and Ms. McRae, a member of First United Methodist Church of Jamaica, fried the birds from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. United Methodist Women members who went to the New York Conference Officer Training Day in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., returned in cars carrying bread, nonperishable food, clothing and financial gifts for the center’s work.
Before the hurricane, the center often distributed blankets as needed, but that supply drained quickly. A group of Chinese Buddhists came to ask what was needed and returned the next day with blankets and personal care kits, which were quickly distributed. People even donated cat food.
“Some cat food had been donated, but it had been put aside. Then a woman asked for food for her cat,” Ms. Roebuck said. “That it was available made this lady so happy.”
Still, in the midst of such devastation, many came by the center just seeking a word of hope, a word from God. “We listened to people who just needed someone to witness their tears and be angry,” Ms. Davis said. “They were asking, ‘Why?’ They knew we were there to share Christ with them. It’s God working through us.”
Various church groups also came with donations. Members of Southampton Long Island United Methodist Church arrived with new children’s clothing and nonperishable food. Parishioners of Westbury United Methodist Church of Long Island arrived with trays of food. Westbury United Methodist Women member Angela Pratt-Barrett had been coming to the center since March. “I wanted to give more than money. It was God’s time for me,” she said.
The Sheepshead Bay United Methodist Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., had a different story of devastation: the church basement was flooded with six feet of water. The church pastor, the Rev. Sharon Pettgrave-Cundy, said the basement is shared by outreach ministries, Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous, a Boy Scout troop and the Korean youth program of the church, all of which lost books and materials in the flooding. After the storm, the church was also without electrical power and heat. Pastor Pettgrave- Cundy told of the first Sunday service after Sandy. “I was surprised when people came. It was cold and dark, but they did come to worship, and it wasn’t just curiosity,” Ms. Pettgrave- Cundy said. “This brought us closer to each other.”
However, the basement was a whole other story. When the waters receded the church was left with a mix of books, furniture, supplies, musical instruments marinated for days in contaminated seawater. The Rev. Cedric Johnson, pastor of the Newman Memorial United Methodist Church in Brooklyn and coordinator of the Emergency Response Team of Long Island West, New York Annual Conference, came to evaluate the situation and issued a call for volunteers to help clean out the basement.
Dec. 1, 2012, volunteers came to Sheepshead Bay from several churches dressed for the work. Among them were Veronica Darby and Patricia Brooks, Newman Memorial United Methodist Women members. “I did not know what to picture, but the experience was a shock,” Ms. Darby said. “It felt so bad to throw out holy books, but there was no choice. We bagged the Bibles and hymnbooks, formed lines and passed everything along, creating a growing pile of refuse outside. Working together as we did made this a very good day. I’d been on mission trips but never anything like this.”
Ms. Brooks agreed: “It was wonderful to see how everyone came in and worked together. I was exhausted, even a few days later, but this gave us a different kind of strength; to see how merciful God was. In spite of everything, not that many lives were lost.”
The members of the largely Koreanlanguage First United Methodist Church of Flushing, N.Y., were a large part of the Sheepshead Bay cleanup effort as well. The Rev. Daniel Cho of the Living Water English Ministry said this was the second time his church had answered the call for help. The church young adult group also went to Island Park United Methodist Church to help with the cleanup, distribute care packages and pray with people who requested prayers. “People they met told them that what they were doing was awesome. People even broke out in tears,” Mr. Cho said.
All around the city many people were pitching in as they were able. Theodora Cross of the Faith United Methodist Church of Staten Island participated in UMCOR training on how to talk to people and assess their needs. “People didn’t believe how terrible it would be,” Ms. Cross said. “I live on the north shore of the island. I understood devastation, but it’s another thing to see it. It’s hard to fathom.”
Some volunteers had themselves lost power or were in buildings that were flooded. Some had lost wages when they couldn’t get to work for some days. But these same people, volunteers of different faith traditions, clergy and ordinary citizens coming together, made a serious contribution to the recovery from Sandy’s destruction
*Beryl Goldberg is a photojournalist based in New York City.