Wednesday, September 7, 2011

This Week the Cross is Red

Scripture for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 12;1-14; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Perhaps you too found it ironic and perverse that a destructive hurricane should be named Irene, from the Greek “eirene”, peace. Irenic it was not. Lives were lost, property damage was devastating, and just when we might have thought the storm was losing its punch, it battered our neighbors in Vermont to an extent beyond our imagining—except for some in this room, who have seen it.

While that was a surprise, it was no surprise that the Hoosic River rapidly flooded, overflowing its banks, and, at The Spruces, even the berm. What followed was the inundation of that mobile home park, 229 homes becoming uninhabitable, at least for now. An estimated 270 residents have been left homeless. We thank God that the angel of death passed over that place: no lives were lost, and for that safe evacuation we can thank Williamstown’s Fire and Police Departments, Village Ambulance personnel, and Brian Grady and his Harper Center colleagues who went door to door.

Town Health Inspector Jeff Kennedy, Town Manager Peter Fohlin, Board of Health members, and town Select Board members, among them Jane Allen, worked tirelessly to triage emergency relief. Red Cross volunteers had been deployed to the Northeast before the storm hit, and they hit the ground running when this disaster happened, quickly opening a shelter at the elementary school.

With school opening the next day, the shelter was moved here (because Jane Allen asked if we could help, and I was sure I knew how you would answer that question). On hand to greet the shelter folks on Monday night were Margot Sanger, Robin Lenz, Polly Macpherson, Tim and Jo Sunn, and I. What we learned instantly was how prepared Red Cross volunteers are, what clear focus they have on their work, and from what great distances they come to perform it. Sue and Harriet drove that big red and white truck all the way from Omaha, arriving just before the storm. Another volunteer had come from Ohio, one from Arkansas, another from Green Bay, Wisconsin, yet another from Mapleton, Iowa, and others from nearer-by in the Northeast. This crew of seven or eight (it was hard to count them, they seldom stood still long enough) are among seven hundred Red Cross volunteers deployed to the Northeast last weekend.

If you stopped by during the week, you noticed intriguing electronic equipment out front and in the lower hallway before Barbara’s office. This was a high-tech emergency communication center manned by six local members of the Amateur Radio Emergency System, among them local educator Kevin Hartmann, who estimated that each of the six had put in forty hours this week monitoring communications from around the Northeast.

Meanwhile, our own Gail Burns was rolling up her sleeves at her workplace, the First Congregational Church, and from Monday morning on Gail and her boss, The Rev. Carrie Bail, have done an outstanding job matching donations with residents needing help. She issued vouchers from the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Affiliates for gasoline, food, and shelter. She distributed gift cards to local stores as she received them from townspeople walking in. She matched displaced residents with townspeople wanting to sponsor them for a few nights in a motel. She kept track of offers of available rooms in homes. If you see Gail, give her a hug.

Here at the shelter, nighttime guests have been few, no more than three on any night, though as many as 19 have sat around the tables at dinnertime (dinners have come spontaneously from local kitchens like Chef’s Hat and Wild Oats), and others have come and gone, perhaps referred on to the disaster assistance service center at the elementary school, open 9 to 4 daily, with representatives from FEMA, the Massachusetts counterpart MEMA, the Red Cross, and housing officials, all ready to give information and register residents needing help facing their loss. It’s expected that personal counselors will also be there this week.

On the heels of the flooding, Spruces residents went to stay with friends and families, dispersing them to the four winds. Genie Smith is staying with Eilleen Drummond. Matt Emerson, Melissa Keil, and little Sydney Rose went to Melissa’s family in Hinsdale. And many, thanks to Gail, went to local motels. Some were given beds at Williamstown Commons. I believe Sweet Brook took some. Sweetwood was preparing to welcome some. Displaced residents with pets have been bunking-in at town hall with their animals (what a sight that must be!), since animals aren’t allowed on-site at Red Cross shelters. Some residents with pets have slept in their cars with them. And I hear that already some people have chosen to relocate to other mobile home parks or apartments in North Adams.

The question so many are asking is, When can residents return to their homes? All have had an initial inspection and each mobile home evaluated. Four have been declared “off limits”, forty have been called “unsafe”, and all the rest “restricted”. There isn’t an encouraging adjective among those words! They are words meant to describe what kind of access owners have to their homes. Most are expected to be repairable, but repairs can’t start until the park’s infrastructure, such as underground electric lines, gets evaluated and fixed—so the uncertainty lingers.

And in that interim a mountain of needs must be met. With apology to St. Paul, we will need to mobilize to make provision for the flesh.

Volunteers are needed to staff the interfaith emergency response center at the First Congregational Church, giving Gail a needed rest (she worked yesterday and will be at it again tomorrow). Volunteers will greet displaced residents, lend an ear and a heart, write vouchers, and answer the phone. Like the assistance center at the elementary school, this office will be open weekdays from 9 to 4, weekdays at least.

Clothing needs to be collected and made available to residents. Members of the Community Bible Church will sort the clothing you bring to the bins on the porch here, and make them available at their facility. We’ll need help delivering bins from here to there.

Non-perishable food and toiletries that you bring to the bins here on the porch will go to a distribution point, probably St. Patrick’s Church. We’ll need help with that delivery.

As long as the shelter here remains open, hot meals at night are a blessing: the signup poster at the font includes this opportunity, if a small cluster of friends want to tackle meal preparation together.

Residents need help cleaning out their homes. Perhaps you’d like to help Matt and Melissa when they tackle theirs, and help Genie when she says it’s time, or offer your services as needed by someone you don’t yet know, who needs you. Yesterday, the new Muslim Chaplain at Williams mobilized twenty students for this work.

With those five examples in mind, you might find it easy to understand that with this kind of parishioner involvement being asked in ten or a dozen or more congregations this weekend, coordination is a must.

We discovered that quickly at Thursday’s emergency meeting of the Interfaith Clergy Association (which includes the chaplains at Williams). It didn’t take us long to see one smart answer, and we’ve hired Robin Lenz to coordinate the congregations in their relief efforts, and to be in daily communication with several local entities—Red Cross, Town Hall, Harper Center, Spruces Tenants Association, Interfaith Affiliates, Northern Berkshire Community Coalition—to ensure that information about needs and available resources flows. A few of us are seeking special funding sources for Robin’s stipend—it will not come from money given to help residents. In the meantime, Robin says our credit is good—and we say it’s a good thing, Robin, that you came home.

Love your neighbor as yourself. So St. Paul sums up what God expects, what God is pleased by. At a time like this, love must put very tangible help in hands that need it. I’ve named several ways, and you know I’m going to name one more.

Raile’s Bowl at the pulpit is open today to receive gifts in the form of paper bills and checks (made payable to St. John’s Church, earmarked Bowl), and a glass vase in front of the lectern will receive pocket change. It’s right that both of those receptacles are so near the spots from which God’s Word is heard, each Sunday, so that God’s Word is done, each Monday through Saturday. None of this money will go to overhead expenses; all will directly benefit our neighbors, those whom we are to love exactly as we want to be loved.