Update from Staten Island, New York

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Darrell Smith and I are on a relief assessment and networking trip in New York on behalf of Trinity Baptist Church and Global Environmental Relief.  We arrived Wednesday evening and hit the ground running with meetings with four churches and one service project.

Thursday began with a meeting with the Church at the Gateway, the very church in which I grew up, located near the Outerbridge Crossing.  Gateway is one of five main church hubs that collects items and donates to individual families as well as smaller churches.

For the past five years, Gateway has been constructing a chapel space, and lack of resources has halted progress.  When Sandy hit Staten Island, the pastoral staff saw how God might use this space for other means.  It now houses a massive distribution center with a space that few churches are able to have.

They are well-organized and work with churches like New Dorp Baptist and others in a local partnership known as the Staten Island Association of Evangelicals.

Darrell and I met their coordinators at a local diner and shared our own experiences with disaster relief and clean up, and we established a great network for months and years to come.

After our meeting with Gateway, Darrell and I drove around the New Dorp and Midland Beach communities, among the hardest hit areas in Staten Island and only minutes away from my family.   Getting from Gateway back to the beaches was especially difficult because of road construction, traffic, and the particularities of New York driving.  We missed our exit on the expressway, and found ourselves driving over the Varezano Bridge to Brooklyn.  It cost us $13.00 for the toll to return to the island.  Expensive mistake!

IMG_1962When we finally found our way to the beaches, we toured streets filled with debris and downed trees.  The devastation was immense, although relatively contained to a small beach-front geographical area.   I remember driving around one house until I realized that the house was not supposed to be there right in the middle of the road!

I’ve been on that beach so many times, and I still can’t imagine the amount of water that came that far inland.  New Yorkers couldn’t imagine it either, and many folks decided to stay put in their homes although they were told to evacuate before the storm.  Countless lives were lost of people who didn’t evacuate, hundreds more who were undocumented immigrants, elderly, or poor were swept away.

Later that day, we met with the pastor and a volunteer of Crossroads Church, an SBC church plant 10 years old.  The pastor told us of his long-term vision for relief efforts, including leasing a fully-staffed, sustainable relief “base” in which counseling, volunteer team coordination, and distribution efforts will take place over the long haul.

His passion was inspiring, and his congregation of over 300 stand poised to reach Staten Islanders for years to come in the rebuilding effort.

Today, Friday, we had an early meeting with New Dorp Baptist Church.  They, too, are staffed to help the island rebuild in the long run.  Like the other churches with whom we met, New Dorp helped in the clean up efforts and “gutting” efforts in ravished homes.

They are transitioning to what local pastors are calling “phase 2,” which is to assess needs of people as it relates to long-term housing, heating, and rebuilding.   Phase 2 is the phase in which churches like Trinity may participate, as volunteer teams of skilled laborers will be needed to rebuild homes over the next 4 to 8 months.

New Dorp also hosts an academy where my nieces attend, and I was fortunate to visit their classes and speak to my oldest niece’s class (3rd grade) about our efforts to help in Staten Island.  When I asked if any of the students have ever been to Atlanta, several raised their hands, and said, “Yes, on the way to Disney World.”  Of course.

The second church of the day was Salem Evangelical Church.  Like Gateway, it is another one of the five hub churches that is large enough to hold a large distribution center.  The coordinator told me of all the outreach they’ve been involved with, including a Thanksgiving meal that fed over 200 people.

We joined volunteers at Salem in the distribution center for a few hours moving shelves and clothing from their gym space to giant storage containers.

Of all the people we met, each one had amazing, heart-warming stories of God’s provision and faithfulness throughout the entire storm.  Tears came to eyes as they told of people coming as far as California to pitch in and help with all kinds of work.  Everyone mentioned the presence of churches and mission organizations, from  Southern Baptist relief teams to electric company trucks from Alabama, that continue to make a difference in the Staten Island area.

These efforts are often the headliners for the local news.  While people are still protesting the precarious response of FEMA and Red Cross, countless people have received aid and speedy clean-up efforts from churches that are simply following God’s command to “love thy neighbor.”  The Gospel is making a difference in this little island, and I am still moved when I hear a New Yorker–with heavy accent more fitting for the mob movies on the big screen–praise God for all the things God is doing here and throughout the tri-state area.

–Joe LaGuardia

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