Seeing Christ Work - By David Hostetler
Linda is a single mom. Her apartment was on the first floor of her building in Galveston, which was convenient for bringing in the groceries and taking her washing to the laundry. Now she has no place for food and no clothes to wash. Like everyone whose home was not elevated, she lost her apartment when the storm surge that Ike brought to Galveston washed it and everything she owned into the Gulf of Mexico.
Edwin’s friends all call him “Showtime.” He works on the ferry that carries people and cars across the shipping channel separating Galveston from the Bolivar Peninsula to the north. His house in Bolivar Point⎯one of the areas hardest hit⎯was a trailer, a single-story structure in the path of the very heart of the storm. In less than 24 hours Ike claimed his house, his dog, and his job (almost two months later the ferry is still closed to the public).
Reggie is a husband and the father of three children. A proud man, he sits quiet and grim outside one of the shelter’s tents. Never before has he been unable to house and feed his family, and as he tells me his frustrations he struggles to maintain his composure. “What apartments are left on the island are all occupied. There are no jobs. What can I do?”
Linda, Showtime, and Reggie are all residents of the Red Cross Shelter in Galveston, Texas. They are three of the hundreds of people into whose midst God placed Fr. Miles Zdinak and me and with whom we would spend several hours of every day that we were in Texas. All of them had similar stories of loss, and all of them needed to tell their stories in order to begin the process of recovery. Many may have had no one to listen had it not been for the IOCC Frontline.
The Red Cross no longer has a chaplaincy, so much of our time was spent doing chaplains’ work for shelter residents, such as finding churches that were open again and having services; providing religious materials to those who asked—Bibles, rosaries, etc.; and praying with any who wanted us to. Most of the time, though, we just listened to them⎯no one else did. And we greeted them by name⎯no one else did. And we touched them⎯no one else would. It was truly remarkable to see the heartwarming effect a grasp on the shoulder had for people in an environment where even a handshake was against the rules.
Seeing Christ at work is a humbling experience—even more so when that work is done right in front of you, even through you. One night a Red Cross volunteer told us about a woman who was so apparently frustrated that the volunteer feared she would hurt one of her children. Determined to look for her, but with only a basic physical description (the volunteer didn’t know her name), we weren’t optimistic of finding her. We didn’t have to. Within minutes of beginning our rounds she approached us. While I played with the children and read them a story, Fr. Miles listened to her story and granted her request for a prayer. We wouldn’t have known it was the mother of concern but for the reaction of the Red Cross volunteer who saw us talking to them and thanked us⎯as if we had anything to do with it.
Jesus also intervened in the mundane affairs. One afternoon as we were entering the Red Cross shelter, a volunteer introduced himself to us as “Blackhawk.” In a bit of a panic he asked, “Do you know where we could get 15-20 duffle bags?” The Red Cross was providing bus fare to shelter residents who had family outside of Galveston, but none of the bus lines allow riders to use plastic bags for luggage—which is all that most of them had left to use. There was no way, apparently, that the volunteers in the shelter could make the required arrangements for purchasing them before for the buses departed the next afternoon. IOCC provided them the next morning. This was a smaller version of the type of aid IOCC provided in the early days of the disaster response. Red Cross workers just could not move through the bureaucratic red tape fast enough to make necessary purchases—an encumbrance the Frontline did not share.
In our own experience and that of other teams deployed by IOCC Frontline, we practiced what I like to refer to as a “commando ministry.” Because we were relatively small and unattached to the big charities doing most of the heavy lifting (the Red Cross, The Salvation Army, etc.), we were able to move from gap to gap filling in where needs were not being met. Our lack of an imposing bureaucracy made us more responsive to immediate needs on the ground, both materially and spiritually, and there was plenty of opportunity to help.
I never saw Linda without a smile after she shared her story with us. She got a bus ticket to go home to Indiana where, she insisted, she will find the closest Orthodox Church and become a member. Showtime is not planning on going anywhere. He’s been in Galveston his whole life and with a quiet but firm resolve plans to rebuild his life there. He thanked us when we left; he said that just our presence there reminded him that God had not abandoned him, and that gives him hope. Reggie’s family has already moved inland, and he plans to follow when he gets his bus ticket. In the process of telling us his story he came to realize that he had options that he hadn’t yet considered. He will stay with his extended family until he can get back on his feet. It’s a tough pill for a man to swallow his pride and accept the charity of another, even when it’s his family, but in talking it through the Holy Spirit can reveal that it’s love and not pity that offers help.
My last Sunday on the island, I worshipped with the combined congregation of Orthodox Christians gathered at Sts. Constantine and Helen Serbian Orthodox Church, one of two Orthodox Churches on the island and the only one to survive the storm. (Assumption of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church will have to be completely gutted and rebuilt.) I was blessed to read the epistle of the day which was from 2 Corinthians 12, including verse 9: “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” I can think of no better benediction for my week in Galveston. Later during the liturgy, Fr. Serge Veselinovich invited us to say the Lord’s Prayer in Greek after it had been said in English and Slavonic.
It was difficult to leave Galveston. The shelter where we had spent so much time was closing and the remaining residents were being moved to another shelter across town which would be run by local and state agencies rather than the Red Cross. It was a stressful time for everyone at the shelter, residents and staff alike, and I feel as though I’ve left my work unfinished. But I also know that it really isn’t my work, and that another Frontline team will be following after me so that God can continue His work through them.