“There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord — but the Lord was not in the wind...” (1 Kings 19:11).
Wherever God stands in relation to violent storms or rising floodwaters, His presence is unmistakable in the merciful and charitable response of people helping others in His name.
Individuals, parishes, St. Vincent de Paul society (SVdP) conferences, and Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO) personnel are taking key roles in helping people affected by tornadoes and widespread flooding.
They’ve been working with local agencies and individuals of numerous faith backgrounds to help God meet immediate needs and restore what has been lost.
The work will continue for a long time.
“Our presence will be evident over the course of the next two years as we start getting people back into housing — interim or permanent — and as we continue to help them with their long-term needs,” said Dan Lester, executive director of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri.
Listening and helping
Catholic Charities personnel from this diocese and volunteers from several SVdP conferences participated in three recent Multi-Agency Recovery Center events (MARCs) — two in Jefferson City and one in Eldon, the week following the May 22 tornadoes.
Sponsored by the American Red Cross, MARCs bring to one location an exhaustive array of agencies and resources for people who have been affected by natural disasters.
“It was a wonderful experience to see and be a part of all the various agencies working together, trying to assist the local community in their need,” said Father Jeremy Secrist, pastor of St. Peter parish in Jefferson City.
Mr. Lester pointed out that natural disasters almost always affect people who are poor and marginalized more than anybody else.
“The people most prone to suffer are also the ones who don’t have the resources to prepare for or recover from these types of things,” he said. “That’s why long-term disaster assistance fits in so well with our mission at Catholic Charities.”
CCCNMO, a ministry of the Jefferson City diocese, is part of the network of agencies affiliated with Catholic Charities USA.
SVdP is a worldwide Catholic organization for laypeople that gives person-to-person assistance to local people who are suffering or in need.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society helps mostly with immediate needs, with Catholic Charities mostly taking a longer view.
St. Peter parish’s SVdP conference in Jefferson City has provided just over $20,000 in immediate assistance since the tornado, according to Dean Dutoi, the conference’s president.
The money came from a special collection in local parishes, a SVdP national grant, and SVdP conferences in the St. Louis archdiocese.
“So far, SVdP conferences in the St. Louis Archdiocesan District Council alone have sent us almost $30,000,” said Mr. Dutoi.
At the three MARC events, SVdP members interviewed 381 families — 276 from Jefferson City and 105 from Eldon.
They gave away 604 Walmart gift cards in increments of $25, depending on the size and needs of each family, and provided fuel and utility assistance.
Listening was a big part of helping. At times during the MARCs, there were eight or 10 SVdP volunteers conducting one-on-one, face-to-face interviews.
Assisting were members of SVdP’s Our Lady of Lourdes conference in Columbia, the St. Brendan conference in Mexico, parishioners from Cathedral of St. Joseph parish, and volunteers from the St. Louis area.
Deacon Thomas Fischer, diocesan SVdP coordinator, said volunteers asked to pray with the people who were requesting assistance.
“It was really neat all around,” he said. “One guy started crying because he was so thankful.”
Emotions ranged from sadness, grief and fear to thankfulness for having survived.
For all the destruction the May 22 tornado caused through Eldon and Jefferson City, there was one reported death from injuries.
“It was extraordinary to hear people describing what happened and telling their stories,” said Fr. Secrist.
Mr. Dutoi said information from all of the interviews for assistance given at the MARCs is being entered into a database.
“We are reaching out to people we interviewed at the MARCs to determine their ongoing needs,” he said.
Starting and continuing
People from Catholic Charities took contact information for people needing long-term case-management — things such as locating and paying for temporary or permanent housing, furnishings, transportation and utility assistance.
The tornado damaged many buildings and their contents, leaving some people without a home and the essentials for making one livable.
Floodwater is doing the same to people in parts of over half of Missouri’s counties.
“A lot of people are simply overwhelmed,” said Alissa Marlow, CCCNMO’s director of community services. “They don’t even know where to begin.”
Good case management offers a starting point and regular contact and help throughout the recovery process.
“Because of our experience with helping after the 2017 floods as well as the work we’ve done as an agency to prepare for events like this, we have a lot to contribute to the community discussion in discerning what the next phase of recovery will be,” said Mr. Lester.
Those discussions are important for ensuring that all available resources are put to the best use, helping as many people and to the greatest extent possible, he said.
Overt and undercover
Mr. Lester called the Catholic response to the tornado and flooding “incredible.”
It includes not only volunteers and contributors but also Catholics who are first-responders and those who work for and lead local relief agencies.
“They might not all be wearing a crucifix,” Mr. Lester noted, “but their faith is certainly informing the work they do every day.”
Fr. Secrist was taken aback by the immediacy of the needs and the assistance being given at the MARCs.
“With a lot of collections we take up throughout the year, the beneficiaries are far away,” he said. “We don’t usually get to shake their hand or look them in the eye.
“But when a major disaster strikes right in the middle of two of our parishes, the people are right in our backyard,” he said. “It provided an opportunity to see the Gospel put into practice in a very real and tangible way.”
Fr. Secrist had great conversations during the MARCs with people from many religious backgrounds and faith perspectives.
“I think when we’re all pulling in the same direction, wanting to achieve what is for the genuine good of others, a lot of the things that can divide us or separate us — they just fall away,” he said.
Mr. Lester said people continue to give generously to Catholic Charities’ relief efforts, while contributions from as far as Texas and South Carolina have been made through the online giving link (www.CCCNMO.org/donate).
Deacon Fischer noted that Catholic parishes, organizations and agencies are an important part of any recovery, but none can accomplish all the work alone.
“We are part of this, but we are not this,” he said. “It’s too big. You can’t do it all alone. You have to know your place among all the other moving parts.”
“That’s why we need a coordinated effort,” said Mr. Lester. “As much as everyone wants to help, it’s good to step back and make sure our processes are in place so we know we’re using the resources in the best way we can.”
He noted that there are many good ways to help.
“But we have to stop and ask, ‘Are we sure we’re helping in the absolute best way?’”
He said Mrs. Marlow has been a driving force in helping plan the ongoing local response to these disasters.
“Different groups — be they faith-based or non-faith-based — we all have our strengths and things we do well,” said Mr. Lester. “The roles we take need to reflect that.”
Something to remember
So where is God in all of this?
“He’s all over the place,” said Mrs. Marlow. “A lot of us who are doing this work believe in Him and need to assist those who are vulnerable. We pray together at our interagency meetings.”
She was spellbound by what another faith-based service-provider told her: “I have to listen to God. I might not have all the answers. But if God is telling me to help this person, then the answers will come and the means will come.”
“We all serve the greater purpose,” said Mrs. Marlow. “We all help people in need.”
Fr. Secrist noted that many of his former parishioners in St. Thomas still vividly remember the floods and tornado that struck the town the late 1940s.
What might people remember 70 years from now?
“My hope,” he said, “is that there will also be the memory of the goodness and the outpouring of love and support from the local community.”
“Hopefully, when people remember the destruction, these acts of charity done in the name of Christ will continue to be remembered,” he said.