The summer of 2017 brought a number of devastating natural disasters to North America, including fires in central British Columbia and crushing hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. We have witnessed incredible destruction and incalculable human suffering. Natural disasters have profound and lasting effects on people, regardless of what was lost. The disturbance of nature and the violent upheaval of that natural order are traumatic, and they tear a strip through our vision of reality.
There are many other forms of trauma and suffering that have equal or greater effect. Warfare, violence, addiction, poverty, racism, abuse, or illness are all realities that will affect the life and work of pastors around our world. But natural disasters rank among them and overlap between them. It is worth reflecting on what they might mean to the average pastor or priest.
In my first year as rector of a parish in Fort McMurray, I experienced one of the worst natural disasters in Canadian history. The wildfire forced the evacuation of 90,000 people, and it destroyed entire neighborhoods and the surrounding forest. At 18 months later, I will share some practical reflections on my experience as a pastor in these circumstances.
In no way do I consider my ministry in this time be especially emblematic. After comparing notes with other pastors, I know we all more or less did the same kinds of things and struggled with the same problems. This is less an advice column than a description of succeeding phases of an experience that swept over and through us so fast and so powerfully that we will probably spend the next number of years trying to understand what exactly happened.
The first few days: These are the most intense days, depending on the duration of the disaster. Amid evacuations and intense media coverage, it seems there is always a time of great confusion and chaos. There are wild rumors and speculation, and little will be verified. Between caring for my family and fleeing danger, there was not much time for anything else, though I did find time to cancel vestry that evening.
Like most other people, I spent countless hours on the phone, trying to get in touch with people in the parish, and finding out where they were. On a practical note, bring along a parish list when you’re evacuated. I forgot mine and regretted it every day for the two months we were away from home.
Due to circumstances of geography, most evacuees from Fort McMurray ended up in Edmonton, at least for a time. Most churches held services that first Sunday and we did the same. I have never experienced the kind of urgency we felt to gather and worship together on a Sunday morning.
There were many embraces, lots of emotion, and a continual telling of our stories. As far as I can tell, a pastor can do only a few things in the first few days of a natural disaster, other than protecting the family. Pray, obviously, help others where possible, communicate with parishioners, and looks for opportunities to gather people together. I have colleagues who held services in work camps, evacuation centers, or wherever people had scattered. These were vital experiences for people, and they helped provide some stability, comfort, and hope in the middle of chaos.
Dispersion: A community and thus a church can be scattered for a significant time. We were not allowed back into the community for a month, and most people did not return until two or three months after the fire. During this time I struggled to know what to do. I traveled a little to meet people wherever they wound up. As aid money poured in we increasingly had to make decisions about how to spend the money. We had to determine who was in need and how we could help. This was stressful but rewarding work.
Most pastors I spoke with found this strange time to be agonizing. We felt an anxiety to do something, yet it was not always clear what could be done. Because of the adrenaline and chaos of the evacuation, I found it very difficult to slow down, and nearly impossible to pray in any coherent way. So many plans were discussed, made and remade, and yet the information was always changing, and in retrospect I wasted a lot of energy worrying about unrealized possibilities and phantom circumstances that merely took time to resolve. Would there be a church for me to return to? How were we going to pay our bills as a parish? Would things ever be the same? Such worries are inevitable, but in retrospect a little more faith would have been in order. The care and provision of God overwhelmed us all.
Returning: As much as we wanted to be home again, there was considerable unease about what we would find and what life would be like. Our church was still standing and relatively unharmed, but the experience of returning would have been far different otherwise. My first Sunday back in church was certainly memorable: we had an open mic in place of the sermon and people shared their stories, their pain and their gratitude.
Each Sunday a few more people would trickle in, but it became clear that we would be a different congregation than before. Many people did not return, while others were making plans to leave. Few things are more difficult for a pastor than saying goodbye to dear and faithful people, and yet this became routine.
New people came as well. Natural disasters shake something loose inside of people. There is a brief window in which individuals and societies are pried open to the reality and life of God. It was an incredible blessing to witness this, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of some powerful moments in people’s lives. In the church, in the community, in my neighborhood, it seemed everyone wanted to talk about God, about their lives, and about the wonder and terror the fire brought into our community.
Rebuilding: The energy and raw emotion of the return to the community eventually faded. Rebuilding a community is exhausting and, in some cases, it can feel oppressive. The lives of most people were challenging and stressful enough before the fire, but for those who lost houses, and for those whose houses were badly damaged, navigating insurance claims and setting up a temporary life with no fixed term takes an incredible toll.
The usual anxieties about family life, work, relationships or health are deepened and aggravated by the tedium and uncertainty of rebuilding. Even those whose houses were not damaged still struggled to resume a normal life. Still, everything had to resume, and at twice the pace to make up for lost time. Many people struggled with stress in the workplace, as companies and organizations came back online. By the middle of our long winter, it seemed there was not a person in this city who was not exhausted and worn down.
This has profound effects on church life and on a pastor. Nine months after the fire, I was still struggling to write sermons and to say my morning prayers. My mind was still spinning. It had grown accustomed to a frenetic pace, which is not always conducive to pastoral routines. I am really grateful for friends, family, and my spiritual director who listened as I wound my way down from a sprint to, perhaps, a jog.
In these circumstances a pastor and parish leadership have to figure out what kinds of activities and initiatives will benefit a parish and not increase its burden. Contrary to my suspicion that people would not have time or energy for anything, there were wonderful surprises along the way. Though many people in our parish continue to struggle with all kinds of challenges, in the 18 months since the fire I think we have discovered a deeper and more focused sense of the mission and vocation God has given us within our city.
Money: Quite unexpectedly, money became one of the immediate themes that would pervade my experience of the fire, evacuation, and rebuilding. From the beginning we had to worry about our parish finances: how would we continue to pay our bills and salaries when our church was not meeting, when our people were suddenly overwhelmed with unexpected costs? Thanks to the generosity of many people around the world, this concern was somewhat alleviated. Then there were the insurance claims that can take years to settle. Soon the greater concern was how we would spend and distribute the relief funds we had received.
Though it may sound strange, this became a burden of a kind. Most of the funds were highly restricted and required detailed and extensive work to distribute. Committees were formed, proposals were written, there were concerns about equality and fairness. All of this would have overwhelmed me if not for the devoted and capable people who were there to share the responsibility.
Conclusion: Somehow natural disasters are theological, which is to say nothing of God’s agency. They are severe, ruthless, threatening, and death-dealing, even as they seem merciful. To be in the presence of something so dangerous and still live is profound. I am told that large natural disasters change a community for a generation, perhaps longer, and I have no trouble believing that.
I am told that pastors often struggle to recover from these events. Everyone in the community suffers, and some people in the community end up shouldering a portion of this suffering. This too is easy for me to believe, although I know many others have borne a far larger burden than I have.
It is not easy to discern the spiritual character of these disasters, and I suspect that each one has its own character. But something of God is revealed in these moments: the staggering and definitive reminder of our mortality; the mystery, fear and wonder of the elements; the total helplessness of an advanced society in the face of natural forces; the spectacle of ordinary people risking their lives for complete strangers; people helping one another without thought of themselves; the opening of hearts and minds to the presence of God — all of these things and more will change a pastor, and I cannot say that I regret having lived through it.
The fires brought destruction and sorrow, and somehow, in the midst of it, we also experienced the grace of God. My prayers today are for those communities that are just beginning to rebuild, and for the pastors and churches in those places that might be feeling exhausted and helpless: may God give you grace and strength to persevere in your ministry.