How St. Thomas Reformed Church is giving its neighbors hope and practical help, even in the midst of disaster.
By Megan Razenberg
As our plane began its descent through the clouds, I was taken aback by the beauty of St. Thomas—the island greens and the shimmering water.
But then blue squares became visible through the trees. These were the blue tarps provided by FEMA (the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency) to serve as roofs after Hurricanes Irma and Maria barreled through the U.S. Virgin Islands last September. Some houses were still boarded up.
Along with a few teammates from RCA Global Mission and from Volunteer Engagement, I was there to visit St. Thomas Reformed Church, which is taking steps to become a hub for disaster recovery on the island.
When we landed, Jessica, the host at our bed and breakfast, explained that it took three months and three days before they had power and were able to use running water in their home. “Let’s just say I got my camping fix in for the rest of my life,” she said.
As we drove further into St. Thomas, off the island’s tourist coast, the devastation became more apparent. Many of the houses and buildings had no roof—not even a blue FEMA tarp—and were in much of the same condition as the hurricanes had left them. It was as if the reconstruction efforts halted at the edge of the tourist city, and the rest of the islanders were left to wait for assistance. In lower income areas, apartment buildings had massive holes instead of walls, and some apartments were left with walls missing but the dishes still in the cabinets.
Despite the lack of reconstruction, the people we met were in good spirits. Cars sported bumper stickers declaring, “I survived Hurricane IrMaria.” In fact, the hurricanes seemed to knit the community together. Vicky Gomez Christian, the volunteer coordinator at St. Thomas Reformed, explained that after a hurricane, everyone is on a level playing field. Everyone loses something, but everyone also gets up out of the dust and heeds the first call to help others.
Because the economic health of St. Thomas is sustained primarily by tourism, the first parts of the island to get rebuilt were things like resorts, restaurants, and shops. The hope was that the increased revenue would speed up the remaining recovery, but there’s still a great imbalance. The coasts of the island have almost fully recovered, while many houses inland still display the wrath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Those parts of the island are unlikely to see recovery anytime soon; at least one-third of the population lives below the poverty line and doesn’t have the resources to rebuild.
And that’s where St. Thomas Reformed Church has really stepped up. Following the hurricanes last fall, the church provided supplies to community members, which made an impact deeper than simply taking the edge off people’s hunger.
“Our church was able to … not only provide food and water, but to also provide hope,” pastor Jeff Neevel told me. “The fact that people could come here and know that they were going to be talked to, cared about, fed, and sent away with enough supplies to last a couple more days was a source of great comfort and hope for them. What we were really dishing out was the hope of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Light of the World—which is way more than a bottle of water and a can of beans.”
In anticipation of future storms, the church is working to become a sustainable site for disaster response. With many of the larger governmental organizations like FEMA no longer on the island, St. Thomas Reformed is one of the few organizations still providing disaster response and assistance to island residents.
One of the church’s initiatives is a food assistance program. Since many residents of St. Thomas live paycheck to paycheck, they’re not financially able to stock up on food or supplies that would sustain them following a hurricane. So a team from the church has prepared 500 bags of nonperishable food, each one able to sustain a whole family for up to three days. Once the notice is given of at least a Category 1 hurricane, the church will hand out bags to people in the community who are in most need—before the storm actually hits.
St. Thomas Reformed also has the goal of being off the grid and completely self-sustainable through solar power. When a storm rips through, power is among the first things to go—and, as our host said, might not be restored for months. A reliable alternative energy source is crucial. The parsonage’s transition to solar power is complete, with the church building and office soon to follow. This project benefits not only the church itself but also the community as a whole. When another storm hits, the church will be able to function as a disaster response site without having to rely on gas- or diesel-powered generators. Fuel is in short supply on the island after a hurricane.
Additionally, St. Thomas Reformed is developing a clean water program. After the basement of the church was flooded by the hurricanes, the church decided to turn it into a cistern to collect rainwater. The water is then filtered into clean drinking water for people to access after a storm. This solution has the added advantage of reducing waste from single-use plastic; when people come for water, the church will provide large jugs that can be refilled.
Where does all this leave the island of St. Thomas? By the time you’re reading this, this year’s hurricane season will be well underway. “None of us really know what the future holds, but I hope that St. Thomas Reformed Church can continue to be a light to this community,” Neevel said. “We are a downtown neighborhood church, and even though the people around our community are not part of our regular worship community, we still have a call to take care of them and love them and be a reflection of hope of Jesus Christ in the midst of the storm.
“Nothing can separate them from God’s love, not even two Category 5 hurricanes.”
My trip to St. Thomas opened my eyes to the needs that still exist on the island, but it also showed me the beauty of recovery—emotionally, spiritually, and physically. I’m thankful for the work of St. Thomas Reformed Church on the island, and I pray that the church’s efforts continue to bless the people on the island.
Megan Razenberg is coordinator for RCA Global Mission communications. She visited St. Thomas Reformed Church in July with other RCA staff members.
Now that most of the debris is cleaned up and the cosmetic damage repaired, many homes and businesses are in need of skilled workers. St. Thomas Reformed Church is hosting volunteers who have experience with roofing, plumbing, and electrical work, and World Renew Disaster Response Services has volunteer sites along the Texas coast. Contact Volunteer Engagement at firstname.lastname@example.org or 616-541-0895 to learn more.
Not able to get away to volunteer? Give financially at www.rca.org/give/2017-hurricanes. Donations support a variety of recovery efforts in the wake of the 2017 hurricanes.