By Michelle Collins, Florida-Bahamas Synod
Hurricane Michael hit the Panhandle of Florida with surprising strength, devastating the area and causing damage that will take years to recover from and repair. One Florida-Bahamas Synod congregation, Messiah Lutheran Church in Panama City, was deeply impacted. In the days, weeks, and months following the storm, however, the story that is being told about Messiah is not a story of damage and destruction, but rather a story of resiliency, community, and connection.
Before the storm was even over, emails, phone calls, Facebook messages and text messages were coming in with offers of prayer, care and support. In the months since the storm, over $100,000 in cash and gift cards has been donated towards hurricane relief. These funds have been vital in supporting the response and recovery at Messiah, as well as in strengthening the Lutheran presence in that community. These funds have been donated by congregations across the country, including Minnesota, Iowa, Connecticut, New Jersey and North/South Carolina. They’ve been donated by synods, conferences, pastors, and individuals, as well as collected by congregations within the Florida-Bahamas Synod. “The generosity of the church around the country has blown me away,” said Michele Hilton, Assistant to the Bishop for Administration. “It’s just amazing.”
Already on the calendar before the storm were two student retreats at Luther Springs outdoor ministry camp. With very short notice, the campers were invited to bring a collection of supplies with them to their retreats, and together the groups collected and packed personal care kits that were delivered to the Panhandle in the first weeks following the storm.
Over and above the financial and in-kind donations has been the relational response of prayer, support and action. Colleagues and congregational members from the Panhandle Conference coordinated an on-site visit to Messiah in the first few days to help with the initial work of pulling up carpet and cleaning out debris. In a conference where the distance between ELCA congregations is up to 5 hours, this coordination and collaboration was incredibly significant.
One congregation, Atonement Lutheran Church in Sebring, FL, was still recovering from their own damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017. Atonement is a small congregation that has been experiencing financial strain for several years, complicated by the damage caused by Hurricane Irma. But out of their care and appreciation for the support they received from local, synodical and churchwide bodies in their time of need, they were committed to a generous response for the sake of those impacted by this storm. Atonement collected and donated $2,000 for Hurricane Michael response. In the list of financial, in-kind, and prayer/relational donations offered, the size of the congregation has nothing to do with the size of the donation. Small and large congregations alike have shown surprising generosity and care. “Between what Messiah has received directly and what has been directed to us at the synod office,” assessed Michele Hilton, “over half of our congregations have extended generosity to Messiah in the form of physical, financial, or spiritual/emotional response. And it keeps coming!”
While Messiah did experience damage, overall the campus was not as impacted as other buildings and churches in the area. As a result, Messiah is in a unique position to serve as a staging area for other relief agencies wanting to serve the community. Within only a few weeks of the storm, Christian Aid Ministries—a Mennonite relief agency—had parked their trailer on the grounds at Messiah and were offering showers, case work review, debris clean-up, and other support. The partnerships that are developing between the ELCA and other groups in the area will strengthen the community far beyond the repairs of the storm. “It really is heartwarming!” concludes Michele Hilton, who coordinates disaster response in the Florida-Bahamas Synod. “It makes all we do so worthwhile ….to see US being Church Together. It just makes my day.”
When Bishop Suarez visited the community of Messiah for worship shortly after Hurricane Michael hit, he was struck by the emotions displayed as people greeted each other and exchanged signs of God’s peace with one another. On one hand, the emotions were of grief and exhaustion as people shared stories with one another. But on the other hand, there was an incredible depth of hope as people rallied together and committed to standing strong as a congregation and community. Supported by the financial, in-kind, prayer, relational and emotional care flowing in from throughout the country, Messiah Lutheran Church and the people in Panama City and the Panhandle will recover from the devastation of Hurricane Michael. The physical, spiritual, and emotional resources for restoration, rebuilding and recovery continue to flow, and the power of being church—the gathered body of Christ—remains.