The Lord’s Shaping With a Storm – One Year After Sandy
by Jennifer Peacock, Hurricane Sandy survivor and member of Faith Bible OPC in Brick, New Jersey (October 29, 2013)
ACT I: The Local Body:
“This storm and the kids coming to help our church family, I believe brought us all together, two churches that needed help. We learned so much about each other during this heartbreaking time. We all learned what gifts God has given each of us. God has given us at Faith Bible a wonderful new beginning. Praise the Lord.” – Faith Bible Church, OP, member Doris Westphal (FBC)
OCTOBER 20, 2013—The benediction given, the congregation disperses. Some of the ladies head to the kitchen to put finishing touches on lunch. Tables filled with slow cookers, beverages, salads, and sandwiches line the narrow hallway. Inside the fellowship hall children fidget at the white-plastic-covered tables, waiting for the go-ahead to attack the chicken nuggets (because they can’t eat dessert without having eaten lunch first) while adults break into groups of two and three to chat, to laugh. An older gentleman, the retired pastor who has been with the church since the 1950s, emerges from the kitchen and asks everyone to wait just a couple more minutes. A younger father, one of the newest members of the congregation who towers over him, adds that women and young children eat first. Finally, a prayer of thanks is offered. As the children finish eating they retreat outside to enjoy the unusually warm, dry autumn day and throw around a football. The pastoral candidate settles at a table and talks about his family and ministry in Northern Virginia. Some of the moms finally make their plates and sit down to eat. The youngest covenant child, a squirmy 7-month-old with black, curly hair, is passed from mom to mom, though he’d like to be down on the floor crawling. Among the chit-chat about doctors’ appointments, vacation plans, and construction on the island, is talk about this church’s future.
A year ago this scene seemed unlikely. Not because fellowship meals are a rare occurrence in church circles, but because merger talks between Redeemer OPC (ROPC) and Faith Bible Church (FBC) apparently stalled. ROPC had young families; FBC had an aging congregation. FBC owned its church building and manse; ROPC rented a church building it couldn’t afford to purchase. Yet last October many thought the plans to merge were all but dead.
Then Super Storm Sandy struck.
On October 29, 2012, ROPC was a pastor-less, tiny congregation with a borrowed Session and no deacons. On October 30, they were building-less as well. Their 8,000-square-foot rented church building in Seaside Heights, which sits just several blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, sustained massive damage from flooding. Even if the building were usable, in the weeks and months following the hurricane, the northern barrier island was blockaded by State Troopers and machine-gun wielding National Guardsmen. Parts of Route 35, the north-south state highway that runs through the island, were impassable. All non-residents were forbidden from entering many of the towns. For many weeks residents were allowed back in only to collect belongings, and only during certain hours. From across the bay, the normally lit-up shoreline was black.
Yet FBC’s building in Brick experienced a power outage and little other damage. That location, as well as FBC’s manse a few blocks away, served as the initial central location for relief efforts and housing of volunteers. Members from both churches worked side by side to not only help the families from both churches—at least six in ROPC, two in FBC—displaced by the storm, but feed, house, and clothe needy friends and neighbors in the community as well as volunteers that poured in from throughout the United States and Canada.
“A bunch of women were a big help with organizing the feeding of large groups for lunch. One woman picked up supplies from Samaritan’s Purse. Others prepared the manse so volunteers could stay there. One FBC member’s husband [who doesn’t attend church there] helped prepare the manse, too,” local OPC disaster relief coordinator Charlie Farrell said. “Prayer became a focus amongst the congregation as a whole…prayer for safe travels of each volunteer team, homeowners, etc.”
By early December, the two congregations were worshipping together.
“[FBC] showed Christian compassion toward us, that we lost our church. They basically said, ‘You have no church, you can start worshipping here,’” ROPC member Ben Szuba said. “I think they were just overjoyed to see all the children in the church and just so joyful to have us there.”
The merger was finalized in February, 2013.
ACT II: The Church Universal:
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:35
“Before [Redeemer OPC] merged with Faith Bible Church, it really didn’t matter to me if we belonged to a denomination. But after seeing all the help we’ve received, I can definitely see the benefit of belonging to a larger body.” – Faith Bible Church, OP, member Dave Weller (ROPC)
OCTOBER 22, 2013—The length of Route 35 South on the northern barrier island looks like one giant construction site. Men in neon-yellow safety vests and hard hats navigate backhoe loaders and crawler dozers among the bright-orange cones and barrels lining the shoulder. Above-ground gas lines run along the side of the road. Detour signs take southbound traffic through an obstacle course of cones to Route 35 North, which is separated from the southbound road by blocks of residential housing and businesses; the road winds around and southbound traffic is again on the correct highway. To the left, where Seaside Heights starts, the two-story brick church building still has its banner reading ‘Redeemer Orthodox Presbyterian Church.’ The parking lot is filled with trucks and heavy construction equipment.
Two-and-a-half miles south of the church building, Dave Weller(ROPC) waits at Uncle
Nick’s Sub Shop in Seaside Park. Dave has owned the business with two other partners for about six years.
While Seaside Park only boasts about 800 year-round residents, Dave and his partners decided last year to keep the sub shop opened throughout the fall and winter months. That didn’t happen.
“All the equipment got ruined. We lost all our product. We had to redo the entire inside,” he said. The shop was able to open for the 2013 summer season, and will stay open all year this year. Stephanie Avellino of Calvary OPC in Glenside, PA, hosted a fundraiser for the sub shop in February and raised more than $1,000.
“That was a huge help,” Dave said. “God bless all the people who helped, who came out to help.”
A woman comes toward Dave, pushing a double stroller with fraternal twins inside. The woman’s mom walks behind her, stops by Dave, who is sitting on a bench outside the sub shop, and points to the blackening northern sky. She asks if it’s supposed to rain. Tonight, Dave tells her. Whether she overheard Dave talking about hurricane-related repairs or not, the grandmother tells Dave that her home on Pelican Island is still being worked on. While her daughter loads the crying toddlers into the minivan parked in front of the sub shop, trying to appease them with promises of seeing the ocean, the grandmother quietly confesses to Dave she doesn’t really like the water.
“And you live on Pelican Island?”
The grandmother smiles. “Well, you know, the husband and kids like it, so what are you going to do?” She shrugs, climbs into the van’s passenger seat, and drives off.
Dave’s family has owned homes in Brick since the 1950s; he’s owned his own house in Cherry Quay since 1987, and a rental property down the road from there for more than a decade. Across the street is Kettle Creek, which drains into Barnegat Bay. The worst flooding Dave ever experienced there was from a 1992 Nor’easter; water did breach the bulkhead and dumped an inch of water into his backyard. So news of the impending hurricane last October didn’t faze Dave. But around 9 p.m. October 29, he and his roommates watched water quickly overtake his home. In less than 30 minutes, 18 inches of water flooded the house.
“I never thought it was going to happen,” Dave said. All told, his home, his rental property, and his mother’s home next door sustained $100,000 worth of damage. He’s stayed in his house since Sandy struck.
“The OPC has been wonderful. Not only the OPC but all the various churches—all the help has been amazing. I’m just amazed that people have come from as far away as Canada, Alaska, Tennessee.” OPC teams, as well as teams from churches with fraternal ties with the denomination and even those outside that communion have helped gut and renovate Dave’s properties. “All these loving people, all God’s people coming together helping brothers and sisters in Christ. It astonished me that people gave up their time to help other people.”
Dave had to leave to do some painting at one of his properties before he went to the men’s pizza fellowship with the pastoral candidate at the manse.
* * * * * * * *
Three blocks from Uncle Nick’s Sub Shop resides Gladys Tracy (ROPC). Across the street from her two-story home is a large, sand-and-pebble parking lot on Barnegat Bay. This afternoon the wind is driving choppy water over the small bulkhead lining the road. The shallow puddles hug the side of the road.
“I love this area. I wouldn’t want to sell and move anywhere else,” Gladys said.
Gladys and her husband, a boatman, bought their house in 1963 after the last big storm hit New Jersey the previous year. They raised their daughter and triplet sons in the house. Gladys, widowed more than 20 years ago, invited her sister and brother-in-law to move into the downstairs. Her sister stayed after her husband passed away.
Gladys rides a motorized seat to the downstairs level then takes her cane. The chair, she says, was initially for her sister. Now they both use it. She slowly enters a spacious room with only a table in it. The freshly-painted walls are lined with hers and her sister’s framed counted cross-stitch work.
“There’s no more room upstairs for them,” she says with a laugh, raising her cane and pointing to the wall. The backroom, separated by an open doorway, looks empty. She talks about buying futons for her children and grandchildren to sleep on when they visit from Florida. Her sister will be staying upstairs with her permanently.
Neither Gladys nor her sister were in the house on October 29 when Sandy hit. They stayed at Gladys’ daughter’s house in Pennsylvania for five weeks. When she was finally able to get back to her Seaside Park house, she discovered that four feet of water had entered the back of the house. It got as high as the doorknob in the front of the house. All her sister’s belongings were ruined. With great difficulty they finally secured a one-year rental out in Manchester; she only needed the home for five months and lost several thousand dollars.
It was weeks before members of ROPC heard from Gladys, but once they knew she was safe and able to have her home repaired, the local disaster response coordinator Charlie Farrell got to work.
“Everything Charlie has done has been so much help to me,” Gladys said. Teams worked alongside Gladys’ sons to gut and renovate the downstairs. The OPC paid for supplies and for the remediation to Gladys’ property.
“Oh my, how good they’ve been! It’s overwhelming, the help I’ve gotten from the diaconate. I can’t thank them enough.”
* * * * * * * *
The clouds break. The bay is calm now. It’s clear to see, as Ann Stabile (ROPC) has an unobstructed view of Barnegat Bay, but not for long she hopes. Construction on one of her neighbors’ new modular home is supposed to start this month, but October is almost over.
“They still come by every day to get their mail. They don’t want to forward it,” Ann said of her neighbors. Unlike their house, the neighbors’ back deck on the bay survived. She said sometimes she’ll look out and see them sitting there, hand-in-hand, staring out at the bay.
Ann speaks fondly of all her neighbors, including her step-daughter and son-in-law who live not too far away; she shares stories of how her neighbors pulled together to literally save each other after Hurricane Sandy; how her son-in-law, a fisherman, navigated his boat through dangerous, debris-filled waters to rescue not only some of Ann’s neighbors but a rescue dog; how one family could not move back, having lost everything and lacking flood insurance; how others are still waiting to come home; how they threw their annual block party this year and more than 50 people managed to show up despite evidence still everywhere along her block that Sandy ravaged her neighborhood; how she loves them all.
A native of Seaside Heights, Ann and her husband Gary settled into their Silverton home in 1990. Gary converted the ranch-style house into a two-story home. Gary’s mother lived in the downstairs until her passing in 2002. Ann kept alive her mother-in-law’s geraniums that occupied a desk in the corner by the sliding glass door, where she would look out at the canal that winds around to Tide Creek and spills into Silver Bay.
The night of October 29, Ann and Gary and their Boston Terrier, Molly, hunkered down upstairs to ride out Hurricane Sandy. At some point in the evening they lost power. Ann carried a flashlight to the stairs and pointed it downward: there was water in the house, and it was quickly rising.
“I saw the water come in, and I don’t know what happened. I really did just have a peace that swept over me. Don’t get me wrong, I never want to go through it again… Boy, God saw us through it!” Ann said.
By the time Sandy passed, two feet of water had invaded their downstairs. But their house was still standing; others on their block that were on the bay didn’t fare as well. They stayed upstairs for five nights without heat, hot water, or electricity, until a lifelong friend of Gary’s was able to make it over to their house and offer them a vacant house in Whiting to stay in temporarily. They stayed two weeks. In the meantime, they discovered their rental properties had sustained damage as well.
Kenley Leslie, a deacon and member of the OPC Committee on Diaconal Ministries brought a team over to assess the damage and start repairs. The downstairs had to be gutted and remodeled. A photo collage of her neighbors hangs on her new downstairs kitchen wall. A new geranium plant sits on a countertop by the sliding glass door.
“The OPC has helped tremendously. The OPC team gutted the downstairs—they’ve been through it before, we haven’t. They told us exactly what we should expect, what we should do. Gary worked with them. They helped us every step of the way,” Ann said. Although the teams wisely focused most of their efforts on the Stabiles’ primary residence, they not only helped Gary with repairs to his rental properties but helped Ann with her cousin’s estate in Seaside Heights, which had to be gutted and cleaned before it sold in May of this year.
“They have been such a big help physically and spiritually,” Ann said. “And I never realized they did all this, this big Christian network across the United States and Canada.”
* * * * * * * *
After Hurricane Sandy, they were only known to the ROPC congregants as Walter-and-Motoko-Who-Live-Over-The-Bridge. Coming from Brick, one would go over the Mantoloking Bridge and make a right. Their house was the fifth on the right.
Now it’s the fourth.
The century-old house has been in the Bray family for 80 years. Walter and Motoko, members of FBC since 1999, stayed in their home during Hurricane Sandy.
“By 3 p.m. the water from the ocean was on the highway,” Walter said, referring to Route 35 (which is Ocean Avenue). “After dark, the garage is gone. Power lines were down.” Their basement flooded, but the water stayed out of their first floor.
“We were very fortunate not to suffer severe damage. Look at what happened 100 yards away.”
Walter and Motoko were able to get off the island and stay in Pennsylvania with a grandson who had an above-garage apartment they could use. They stayed there for 5 months.
The OPC and its disaster relief partners “helped tremendously, really cleaned up,” Walter said. “The church volunteers cleared away remains and debris.” They redid the Brays’ driveway, laid down new topsoil and planted grass, among other work. Today the Brays are back at home, and the only project left undone? They’re waiting for new backdoor steps to be installed.
“I give thanks for the many blessings we’ve had, the blessing of the work we’ve had done. It’s certainly more than I could have handled.”
* * * * * * * *
Charlie Farrell had said earlier, “[God really used] the attitude of the volunteers. Many of them took time to pray with the home owners. Demonstrating a serving spirit really ministered to the homeowners. You could actually see the burdensome weight being lifted in the homeowner's countenance as each group of volunteers came to help.”
ACT III: The World:
“Gary said, ‘Why do they want to help me? They don’t know me.’ I said, “Gary, they are doing the Lord’s work.” – Faith Bible Church, OP, member Ann Stabile
OCTOBER 24, 2013—In the days following Hurricane Sandy, when hot coffee was hard to come by and lines at gas stations were stretching into roadways—in other words, no one could buy anything they wanted, much less needed, without great pains, if at all—the plumber somehow found a new hot water heater and furnace to replace the ones flooded and destroyed by the storm. He could put off asking for the money only until the following Monday. The economy had been bad and he had workers and debts to pay. Jennifer Peacock’s (ROPC) mother-in-law said she understood; when the plumber departed, panic ensued. Jen’s in-laws had neither the cash nor credit to pay for the much-needed replacements; they owned the house Jen and her family had rented from them for six years, and although they would file a claim with their flood insurance, they would not have the money in four days.
The Peacocks lived on the mainland in Point Pleasant. Their neighborhood sat on the northern tip of Barnegat Bay; they lived only two blocks from a large canal and several more from marshland. Tinier canals cut through most of their neighborhood. The Metedeconk River was only a couple miles west of them. Their house sustained flood and mold damage from Hurricane Sandy.
Jen turned to her church and the Committee on Diaconal Ministries for help. David Nakhla, the OPC’s Disaster Response Coordinator, not only delivered that Saturday a check in the amount Jen requested and made out to her in-laws, but the denomination went on to gift the Peacocks with a vehicle purchased from Kenley Leslie (they had lost a vehicle to flooding), pay for storage while the family was displaced, and pay for a rental truck to help the Peacocks move into their new home 30 miles away. Teams from OPCs across New Jersey, as well as two teams from Pennsylvania working with Samaritan’s Purse, on different occasions helped clean their yard, gut the house, and move them into their new house.
“My in-laws marveled at the generosity of not only the money given, but time and talents that God’s people shared without hesitation with not only each other, but strangers. God blessed my in-laws through my brothers and sisters in Christ blessing my family. God takes care of both of physical and spiritual needs! The work the volunteers did saved my in-laws possibly thousands of dollars in labor costs. It’s my family’s ultimate hope that our witness, as well as the witness of my Church and these volunteers, will be used to God to bring them to Christ one day.”
In August 2013, the Point Pleasant house sold to a teacher who said it was perfect.
Ann Stabile’s husband Gary used to complain to her about all the work she did for the church as treasurer. Now he doesn’t complain.
“He has a fondness for them. He’s definitely softened toward Christianity.…It just shows you how doing His work can open up a door for Christian testimony.”
They were indeed, and still are, pastor-less. (FBC’s pastor and his wife took a call in Ohio soon after the merger.) They’re no longer building-less. But they never were Shepherd-less, and so they remain hopeful. Praise God.
Sandy was only one tragedy. Life went on. Some families from ROPC did not move with the congregation to the Brick location. Two families displaced by the hurricane received cancer diagnoses. Other members lost loved ones, some after long illnesses, some quite unexpectedly. Others faced surgeries, injuries, and hospitalizations.
Happily, all of the church families but one are back in their homes or have moved into a new home. In addition, the church installed its first officer this past year. God raised up Charlie Farrell for such a time as this; he’s now a deacon. They also welcomed a new family with six little ones who were all baptized at the merger service in February. They are searching for a pastor to lead their small flock, and their borrowed session will be training men to assume the office of ruling elder by April, 2014, Lord-willing.
There is still work to be done. If you can donate your time and talents, please contact Charlie Farrell at [email protected].
- For an excellent summary of the OPC’s Diaconal Ministry’s response to Hurricane Sandy, please read Patricia Clawson’s article, “Our Response to Sandy’s Fury” in the January 2013 issue of New Horizons.
- For an excellent summary of the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy and the church merger, please read Bruce Fenton’s article, “God Works In Mysterious Ways” in the May 2015 issue of New Horizons.
(Note: The interview with Walter and Motoko Bray occurred on Oct. 20.)