Rev. Scott Stanfill reflects on Hurricane Michael one year later: 'We saw church happen...'
As we mark the one-year anniversary of the worst storm many in Northwest Florida and Southwest Georgia have lived through and as Colquitt United Methodist Church (CUMC) still navigates the effects of the storms, Rev. Scott Stanfill, senior pastor of CUMC, shares his reflections:
The word for “patience” in the Bible can be translated “long-suffering.” Indeed, CUMC continues to live into our current reality of long-suffering while we eagerly anticipate returning to our building. The layers comprising this time of suffering are many, and they are deep. One of the layers is the physical exile into which we are living.
We all recognize and understand that Church is not a building. Church is a movement of the people of God empowered by the Holy Spirit to partner with Jesus in his yoke for the renewal of all things. For CUMC, Church is a movement of the people of God doing their part in making thy Kingdom come in Colquitt as it is in Heaven. Thus, Church can, does, and should happen anywhere. Our community and church continue to live into this truth.
We saw Church happen as Lenox Baptist Church removed massive debris from dozens of yards in the City of Colquitt after the storm. We saw Church happen as the Mennonites cleaned approximately 350 yards and tarped hundreds of roofs in the months following the hurricane. We saw Church happen as Dacula UMC fed thousands in our community via their John 3:16 food truck. We saw Church happen as Christians of all denominations in Colquitt joined hands and worked together. We saw Church happen as many of our members, many of whom were dealing with their own property damage, drove around town handing out water and sack lunches to workers. We saw Church happen as UMC ERT teams from North and South Georgia worked hundreds of hours in Miller County and the surrounding areas. We saw Church happen as over 200 UMCOR cleaning buckets were distributed throughout our community. We saw Church happen as Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson form the North Georgia Conference came to our area to work alongside ERT teams. We saw Church happen when our own Bishop, Lawson Bryan, and members of the cabinet made multiple visits to the area. We saw Church happen as individuals and churches donated water, generators, first aid supplies, and non-perishable foods. We saw Church happen as individuals across the country and local congregations in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Tennessee sent monetary donations in support of our community. We saw Church happen when Albany First UMC offered CUMC a “Sunday Sabbatical,” inviting us to their facility, hosting a covered dish luncheon in our honor, and presenting us with a love offering. We saw Church happen as over 600 United Methodists from two congregations gathered to laugh together, cry together, and encourage one another. We saw Church happen as Madison First UMC collected school supplies for 50 children in Colquitt.
Church is not limited to a building. Church can happen anywhere.
Although CUMC is displaced, Church continues to happen. We have not missed one Sunday morning worship service since the hurricane. We have not missed one planned Wednesday evening activity since the hurricane. Thanks to Chad Cooper and the wonderful people at Colquitt First Baptist Church, we are blessed to have a beautiful sanctuary in which to gather weekly for worship while we await our return home. All of our Sunday School classes have rooms at First Baptist in which to meet and study and grow together. Wednesday morning Bible Study continues. Wednesday evening supper and activities are held at the Miller County Senior Center with good attendance at prayer meeting, young adult study, youth and children’s classes. We were blessed by the invitation to join a combined VBS in June with First Baptist. Our annual Fall Festival in October was said by many to be the best in recent memory, with many un-churched people in attendance. Family fellowship events occurred weekly throughout the summer. We continue to run a Food Bank out of the CUMC parking lot, feeding up to 450 families in Miller and Baker Counties every month. The Agape store (CUMC sponsored and run thrift store) continues to meet a huge need for clothing and affordable household goods and items as residents seek to restore what was lost. Other church ministries continue assisting those at risk and those needing help with utility bills and medical expenses. Although we are displaced, the mission keeps moving forward.
Yes, church can happen anywhere. We have seen that. We have lived that. And we will continue to live that for another year at the very least. We know Church is not limited to a building. But we know church buildings are sacred spaces for many of us. Church buildings are holy ground on which the people of God take off their sandals, gather together as a forgiven and reconciled community, and drink from “thou fount of every blessing.” Our faith is wholistic—comprising the spiritual as well as the physical. Our faith is heaven and earth coming together. Our faith is one in which we believe God became flesh and lived among us. Our faith is one in which we believe the Creator of all that is and is to come came to us at a specific time, in a physical location. And we believe, through the Holy Spirit, the presence of God is manifest today through physical means of grace. The Church is a means of grace. Church buildings are physical locations where we experience God’s grace though worship, grow in God’s grace through study and intimate, Christian fellowship, and share God’s grace through service. Most every significant event in my life is connected to a local church building and its people. Church can indeed happen anywhere, but for the members of CUMC it has happened specifically at their church for over 100 years. Most every significant event in the life of a CUMC member is connected to 453 East Main Street, Colquitt, Georgia. I know because I am reminded almost every day.
I hear story after story of people who committed their lives to Christ at the altar at 453 East Main Street. I hear of people who remember VBS years ago when children first heard the old, old story of Jesus and His love. I hear stories of Christmas Cantatas and Easter musicals, powerful performances in which the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ penetrate the visceral depths of the soul in a way that mere words cannot. I hear of people whose spirits were so stirred by the Holy Spirit they began a Celebrate Recovery group. I hear of people whose hearts were so filled with a Holy Discontent they were sent out into the mission field. I hear of people who heard and responded to the call of Jesus to feed the hungry by organizing a food bank. All of this fruit, and so much more, is produced by the vine of Christ rooted at 453 East Main Street. I hear of baptisms, weddings, funerals, celebrations of the Lord Supper—all of those holy moments in which the presence of Christ and the imminence of his grace is palpable. I hear the stories. And I hear the pain.
Walter Brueggemann says we often think of the Old Testament prophets as social critics and political activists. But they are best described as poets. Their first poetic move is always a public expression and processing of grief and pain. The prophet does this, not to leave people in tears, but rather so that people, through their grieving, might learn to relinquish their commitment to the status quo, and try to be open to the new arrangements of reality, to the will of God. Vision and revision as God moves us deeper into God’s will is dependent upon letting go, and in the relinquishment there are always tears. We have shed many tears as a community and church family since October 10. There have been many things of which we have let go. Some have been by choice. Most have not.
Children of our church have asked when they will be able to sing in “their church” again. And the tears are shed. Elderly members have wondered about having their funerals at someplace other than the church where they have worshiped and served for eighty years. And the tears are shed. I see the looks on congregants’ faces every time I stand in the pulpit on Sunday mornings. And the tears are shed. I see a glimmer of hope as we worship together, yet I see a glimmer of pain, longing for home. And the tears are shed. I field questions on an almost daily basis from members asking when any visible progress will occur. And the tears are shed. Since our worship services, study groups, and outreach activities are scattered around town, my six-year-old daughter and three-year-old son now refer to 453 East Main Street as “the damaged church,” simply to keep all of the locations straight in their minds. And the tears are shed.
On this one-year anniversary of Hurricane Michael and with at least another year before we can return home, the days and nights spent in the prophetic wilderness are taking their toll. We are still in what Brueggemann refers to as the poetic stage of grief and pain. Several clergy colleagues have asked to what would I compare this entire experience (which is far from over by the way). The best to which I compare it is this: Passion. As CUMC gathered for worship on Palm Sunday amidst threatening skies and tornado watches, I shared the following words by Dr. Geoffrey Lentz (Sr. Minister at Port St. Joe FUMC), slightly edited to fit CUMC's context:
"We are longing for the days when homes will be built again and clear progress will be made. If I am honest, this moment, six months in, may be the hardest yet. Researchers tell us at about the six-month mark the adrenaline from trauma wears off and desperation sets in. I am certainly seeing people wearing down. If I’m honest, I’m worn down. It has been a tiring pace of working day in and day out to put our lives and community back together, and now people are exhausted. We are wondering what comes next. When will we wake up from the insurance nightmare? When will the rebuilding start? When will we get back home? When will things get back to normal?
"Right now, we are still in a time of suffering. We are not in the Garden of Eden. We’re in the Garden of Gethsemane. And here we are, set to begin another week of desperation and suffering in that garden. The more traditional title for Holy Week was Passion Week. We usually think about passion in terms of love or devotion, but the word passion originally meant "suffering." Passion Week is a remembrance that Christ suffered. He knew about the storms of life. He was betrayed by a kiss, abandoned by his friends, suffered under an unjust sentence and sat on death row. Then, he suffered on a cross. Holy Week looks different for us this year, because we know a lot more about suffering. Suffering is a basic human state; we all suffer and have our losses. The difference with Hurricane Michael is we suffered together. We all share the same story and similar losses. It is a great comfort to know we do not suffer alone. This year, especially, we are comforted knowing Christ suffered with us, his body was broken like our homes, our church, and lives. But just as Christ was not forgotten in his suffering, we know we are not forgotten either."
We are not forgotten in our suffering, as churches and individuals in Colquitt and Miller County continue to extend the love of Jesus to one another. And yet, in ways that are impossible to convey without the shared experience, we are still living Passion Week as a church family. Tears continue to be shed. Maybe the outward tears have dried, but the internal tears and pain of the heart remain. I am well aware there have been many “tears of relinquishment” throughout this season. I am well aware there will be many more until we occupy 453 East Main Street again.
Moreover, I believe with all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength that neither tears nor suffering goes to waste when it is brought to the foot of the cross. Whether your life is broken, your heart is shattered, or your building damaged, the best and only option to take is to trust God with the loss. Jesus can take the worst of life and redeem it for the best as we DAILY put our hands in scarred hands of our Lord and Savior.
The Prophet Jeremiah wrote these words known to many, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). Yet we often forget he wrote those words to people in exile, held captive in a foreign land. Best I can tell, the assurance of hope given to God’s people in Scripture is never given during a time of prosperity. It is given in the midst of long-suffering. That is the reality we share with each other. That is the reality we share with our Crucified and Risen Savior. Our hope is tied to Jesus, the One who showed us how to remain faithful during suffering, the One who strengthens us to remain faithful during our suffering, and the One who WILL ULTIMATELY bring renewal to ALL things. Although we at CUMC remain displaced and will be for some time longer, our hope is not. I am confident in the redemptive power of Jesus and fellowship of the Holy Spirit to transform our grief into joy, our fear into faith, and our death into life.
Romans 15:13: "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."