Photo: Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance
The Power of Presence
watching, listening, and praying as relief work
At the end of October in Orlando, faint signs of Hurricane Ian remained: blue tarps on roofs, trees that broke through fences and walls, swamps and lakes with high water, debris that needed to be removed. For the most part, though, the damage was hidden - there were few washed out or blocked roads, most water had receded, and destruction seemed surprisingly minor. But then, there were the stories of the people.
When disasters come, Disciples generously and immediately respond with gifts to Week of Compassion, knowing their contributions will be put to good use, especially serving people and communities that are often just outside the spotlight, eye-of-the-storm disaster. For years, Week of Compassion has been intentional about partnership in ‘low-attention areas’, places that don’t receive significant and plentiful resources. Rather than descending on a community in an effort to ‘save the day’, it has always been important to Week of Compassion to embody partnership and collaboration. Week of Compassion gratefully partners with ecumenical and local leaders, serving as co-conspirators in community-directed recovery.
Recently, Week of Compassion staff members Raiza Spratt (Disaster Response Organizer) and Alan Dicken (Associate Director for Immigrant and Refugee Response) visited Disciples churches in Orlando. The area did not have the dramatic destruction experienced on the west coast of the state – and therefore received far less news coverage –but still it was hard hit by the storm track and rain from Hurricane Ian. While the visits allowed staff to observe and assess the situation at damaged facilities, even more significant were the face to face conversations, relationship building, and pastoral care. As Raiza shares,
… as we listened to local pastors share their heartrending stories of Hurricane Ian, their unwavering faithfulness was clear.
At the churches we visited, as is often the case after disasters, life keeps moving forward with both celebration and grief. We spoke to David Alicea, pastor at Iglesia Cristiana
(Discipulos de Cristo) Emanuel in Kissimmee. Pastor David and his family found their flooded home mostly unsalvageable. At the time of our visit, members of the congregation were delivering homemade meals, and the pastor and his wife were being hosted in member's homes while they made arrangements for a new place. A prayer blanket from a Disciples congregation and taking time to pray together were meaningful gifts for all of us.
When I asked about their community’s greatest unmet need, Pastor David said “Homelessness.” He hardly mentioned disaster damage, but named how the challenges that were present before the storm were then made worse afterward. As residents displaced by the storms need food and shelter assistance, those that were already homeless before the storm are finding resources increasingly scarce. ICDC Emanuel’s small food pantry is hard at work, and this small (in size) church is even organizing a garage sale and some support for newly arrived Venezuelan and Dominican families in the area.
At Iglesia Cristiana Hispana in Casselberry, Pastor Hector Santiago noted that while the floodwaters had receded some, issues remained with parking lot drains that can’t manage the volume of water. Even though the worship space took on some water, the church’s food pantry is very active, and partnered with local grocery stores and businesses to provide Thanksgiving boxes to a larger group of families than in previous years. Pastor Hector told story after story about his congregation, including a treasured member that recently passed away, a kind man who was not only the property chair, but also a softball coach, and a beloved part of the community, close to Pastor Hector’s own family. In the midst of these powerful memories, we made space for listening, healing, and prayer.
The work and witness of Week of Compassion is engaged in ministries of relief each day, thanks to generous contributions, ongoing collaboration with ecumenical partners and denominational colleagues, and through the work of willing volunteers. Sometimes relief and response looks like clean-up crews and rebuilding efforts, and sometimes it is rooted simply in presence and prayer. Trusting that those closest to the need are also best equipped to meet it, Week of Compassion partners with local congregations, supporting their work in the wake of disasters. It is the deeper reality of hidden disasters and personal impact that makes our mission statement such a critical focus for day-to-day work, and for the long term: Week of Compassion works with partners to alleviate suffering throughout the world.
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