In a day devoted to mundane but necessary work, an extraordinarily emotional event occurred Thursday at the Executive Council meeting.

In addition to discussions about budgets and the possibility of revising committee structures, Abagail Nelson, senior vice president for programs at Episcopal Relief & Development, provided an overview of the agency’s work in the wake of recent hurricanes and other natural disasters.

The highlight came during the question period, when the Rev. John Floberg, council member from North Dakota, took the microphone.

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“Where I come from on the Standing Rock Reservation, whenever they have a powwow and somebody likes the dancing that’s going on … they put money down at the feet of the dancer. That’s what I’m about to do.”

He walked to the front of the podium and let three bills flutter to the ground. After a round of applause, council members, staff, and visitors began rising from their seats to do the same. A small shrine made of currency grew on the carpet, as people around the room wiped away tears.

It was the second day of the Executive Council’s regular, four-day meeting, held at the Maritime Conference Center in Linthicum Heights, Maryland.

Nelson told the plenary session that in her 18 years at the agency, “I’ve never seen anything like we’ve been going through in the past eight weeks.” She listed the string of disasters: Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, as well as wildfires in Northern California and an earthquake in Mexico.

  • In Puerto Rico, where 90 percent of the people are without power, all 52 churches in the diocese are open and functioning as distribution centers. The northern part of the island lacks a clean water supply, and some people are drinking from contaminated streams.
  • The Diocese of the Virgin Islands, which encompasses both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, has had a companion diocese relationship with the Diocese of Alabama for years. Pushing through communications problems, Alabama “single-handedly and doggedly tracked down every clergy member and lay leader on their list,” Nelson said. “Thank God for the Diocese of Alabama,” said the Rev. Jabriel Ballentine, council member from the Diocese of Central Florida. He also said Episcopal Relief & Development staff were a comfort to him in the three days when he did not know if his parents were still alive on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.
  • In the Diocese of Texas and the Diocese of West Texas, 71 churches and other institutions are working in partnership with Episcopal Relief & Development to provide support to 25,000 people.
  • In Mexico, the agency is working with Anglican dioceses to provide food and shelter for people left homeless by earthquakes.
  • Back on the mainland, Episcopal Relief & Development is providing Hurricane Irma relief in the Carolinas, four dioceses in Florida, and Georgia.

“This is going to be a long haul to a new normal,” Nelson said. “We’re not going to get everybody back to where they were.” But they will do what they can with their widow’s mite. “The church’s ministry is multifold, and gorgeous,” she said.

Oh, and the pile of bills on the floor? “776 dollars,” Nelson told TLC later, by email. “Amazing given the spontaneity of the moment.”

Kirk Petersen

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