By Cheryl Magness
On Sunday, Oct. 2, the congregation of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Englewood, Fla., assembled, as they do every week, to receive the Lord’s gifts of Word and Sacrament in the Divine Service.
On this day, however, the congregation sat not in Redeemer’s sanctuary, but in moveable chairs under Redeemer’s porte cochere, as Hurricane Ian had rendered the building temporarily unusable. The Rev. Craig Mathews, Redeemer’s vacancy pastor, told the congregation that the service was a reminder of God’s presence among His people at all times.
“Yes, we are hurting. We are in pain. But God is protecting us. God is going to stand by us,” Mathews said.
He added that the service, while providing comfort for the congregation, wasn’t “just about … ourselves” but about strengthening and nourishing the people of Redeemer so that they can be a blessing to the community. “God wants us … to be there for others,” he said.
Mathews began serving as Redeemer’s vacancy pastor less than two weeks before Hurricane Ian made landfall. He said that as Redeemer recovers from the storm, the church’s search for and transition to a new pastor may be delayed, but he trusts that God will use it for good.
Worse than Hurricane Charley
Hurricane Ian was identified as a tropical depression on Sept. 23. It made landfall in Cuba on Sept. 27, in southwest Florida on Sept. 28 and in South Carolina on Sept. 30. At its strongest, it came ashore near Fort Myers, Fla., as a Category 4 storm.
A week after landfall, the death toll — primarily from water — had surpassed 100 people in the U.S., with emergency responders continuing to search for survivors. More than 3 million U.S. residents lost power during the storm, and initial damage estimates place property losses in excess of $100 billion. Another $60 billion is estimated to be paid out by insurance companies.
Matt Krupick is the facilities manager at Zion Lutheran Church in Fort Myers. Krupick, who was born and grew up in the area, said he has never seen this degree of destruction from a storm, “not even during [Hurricane] Charley,” a Category 4 storm that struck southwest Florida in 2004.
“To see the Sanibel Causeway gone … it’s mind-boggling,” Krupick said. “I used to go out there and scallop when I was little. We would pick up the shells and bring them home and make crafts.”
Krupick has an old photo of himself and his siblings on Fort Myers Pier. Some of the restaurants in the photo were destroyed by Ian and “will probably be gone forever.” Krupick worries that people and businesses will leave rather than rebuild. But he says that as soon as the power is restored, Zion’s carillon will remind anyone within earshot that Zion is still standing. The hymns have a message that “will help people get through this,” Krupick said.
The Rev. Robert Davis, pastor of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in North Fort Myers, said he is having trouble reaching many of his congregation members. The church also has an Early Childhood through Grade 12 school, which Davis says serves many children from households with financial and other challenges.
“Good Shepherd isn’t a [separate] church and school,” Davis said. “We’re one Body of Christ, one ministry. … We do not want to surrender that. For many of these children, we are the only voice of Christ in their lives.”
At the time Davis spoke with Reporter, the church had no power and no water. The roof over the school cafeteria was destroyed by the storm, and several classrooms also had roof damage. In addition, the church and school campus experienced significant water damage; lost several hundred yards of fencing; and sustained damage to its playground, bleachers and many trees. Davis’ own home, as well as the homes of several members, was also damaged. Some members don’t know the extent of damage because they can’t get to their homes.
“One of our teachers, who has taught at Good Shepherd for 30 years, has her home on the Barrier Islands. It is probably gone,” Davis said.
Coming together as the Body of Christ
Lori Schwan, director of Christian education (DCE) at St. Michael Lutheran Church in Fort Myers, was attending a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) Florida-Georgia District educators conference shortly before Ian hit. The Rev. James Rockey, district president, was also at the conference, where one of the topics was stress management. Schwan said she never expected how soon the training would come into play. She draws strength from her church family.
“When you’re in the Body of Christ, you can go through any storm,” Schwan said. “When you’re by yourself, it can be hard to remember that Jesus is there with you. … It makes such a difference to weather it together.”
The Rev. Karl Glander, pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Fort Myers, said the homes of 10 Bethlehem members are currently uninhabitable. One recently widowed member is now dealing with the effects of the hurricane. But the congregation remains strong.
“[It is exciting] to see how people react when others are suffering,” said Glander. “They realize, ‘I don’t have it so bad.’ … For a little church, this church is very big. They do a lot [to serve others].”
A coordinated response
On Sept. 30, in the aftermath of the hurricane, LCMS Disaster Response Director Rev. Dr. Ross Johnson traveled to Florida to join Rockey in surveying areas affected by the hurricane.
On Oct. 1, at Grace Lutheran Church in Naples, Fla., Rockey led a meeting of church workers from area congregations. Attendees included Kami Mogelvang, DCE at Grace, and her husband, Christian. The Mogelvangs’ home sustained extensive flood damage from Ian. Christian said that the support of the larger church is the “most amazing blessing” during times of difficulty. “God’s people are awesome. … We don’t deserve any of these blessings, and yet He so richly blesses us with His love and His people.”
As search-and-recovery efforts begin to wrap up and the long-term work of cleanup and rebuilding begins, the Synod’s Disaster Response unit, part of LCMS World Relief and Human Care, is mounting a full-scale response in conjunction with the affected districts, district disaster response coordinators and the Synod’s Lutheran Early Response Team (LERT) volunteer network. Among other measures, initial steps in the response include:
- A grant to Lutheran Church Charities to help fund a chainsaw camp in Venice, Fla.
- The establishment of a LERT camp at Zion Lutheran Church in Fort Myers. The camp will house two teams of 12 people each with two on-site coordinators.
- Assistance for LCMS workers and congregations in meeting insurance deductibles. The assistance will be funded by matching funds from the Florida-Georgia District and LCMS Disaster Response. At the time of publication of this story, there were at least 60 workers and 10 churches known to have significant need. These numbers are expected to rise.
- A grant for the LCMS Recognized Service Organization Forged by Fire, which is providing 6,000 meals to the community of Fort Myers.
- A grant for Pelican Lutheran Church in Naples, which offers outreach to the Haitian and Spanish communities.
Catalina Bakas, who serves on the altar guild at Redeemer, Englewood, said that she never questioned whether the congregation should hold Divine Service the Sunday after the hurricane.
“I am new to the Lutheran church. [I have been in the LCMS] about three years now. I know the blessings we have.” Bakas said the storm presents an opportunity to share those blessings.
“If I’m not dead, my job is not done. We are to reach out to our neighbors. This is what we’re supposed to do. He has given us this opportunity,” Bakas said.
Rockey attended the service and spoke to members afterward. He reminded them of Psalm 46, which had been read during the service.
“The psalmist writes, ‘There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.’ … This reminds us that in my Baptism and in your Baptism, we received the gift of God’s spirit, the gift of faith, the gift of forgiveness that is ever present. It will not leave us. It is … for this moment and all the troubles that life will continue to have. …
“What’s wonderful as I worshiped with you this morning and watched you come and receive God’s grace here at the table again today [is that] you have that assurance, you have that joy even with all that is happening around you.”
Rob Tipton, Redeemer’s head elder, said Rockey’s visit reminded him that “we are not alone.”
“God is still here,” Tipton said, “and He is still in control. We’re going to rejoice in that and trust Him for our future as we walk together.”
Volunteer to serve on a Lutheran Early Response Team.
Individuals and congregations in the LCMS, including those in the Florida-Georgia District, who wish to assist with the response are encouraged to contact the district office at flgadistrict.org/lert or call 407-857-5556 or 877-457-5556 (toll-free).
Individuals, congregations and groups wanting to donate to the Synod’s response may:
- Text the keyword LCMSHURRICANES to the number 41-444 from your text-enabled smartphone or tablet.
- Visit lcms.org/givenow/hurricane.
- Make a check payable to The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and write “Hurricane Response” on the memo line. Send to The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, P.O. Box 66861, St. Louis, MO 63166-6861.
- Call 888-930-4438.
The Florida-Georgia District is also receiving direct contributions to support its hurricane response at flgadistrict.org/give. (The LCMS is not sending direct donation appeals into the Florida-Georgia District so that individuals and congregations there do not experience duplicate or competing solicitations.)
For additional assistance or to ask questions about donating, please call LCMS Mission Advancement’s Contributor Care Line at 888-930-4438.
Posted Oct. 6, 2022/Updated Oct. 18, 2022