Patricia E. Clawson
Hurricane Sandy hit America’s northeast coast on October 29, leaving devastation on Long Island in New York and on the barrier islands and bay in New Jersey. The storm surge flooded homes and churches, shoved houses off their foundations, sparked fires, dumped yachts on roof tops, downed cell towers and tree limbs, and exploded transformers, knocking homes into the dark and cold. Then a nor’easter dumped a half foot of snow on already damaged branches, causing more power outages.
William Shishko, pastor of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Franklin Square, New York, remembers his first look at Sandy’s damage. “I was stunned at the devastation,” he said. Without power, he tried to get in touch with the church’s most vulnerable members, including Aida Rubin, a widow. He knew she had ridden out the storm in her home. “It was very frightening,” said Mrs. Rubin. When he finally reached her, she was in distress because she needed a generator to help remove backed-up sewage from her basement. Shishko prayed. One hour later, David Nakhla, the OPC’s disaster response coordinator, and David Haney, a Committee for Diaconal Ministries (CDM) member, were at his door with three generators and gasoline. “I was so thankful to the Lord,” said Shishko, who took them immediately to Mrs. Rubin’s home, initiating the OPC’s disaster response in New York.
The three men then drove to Roland and Marianna Bloch’s home, which sits two houses away from an ocean-fed pond. Although they had installed two pumps to keep their basement from flooding, they found their generator submerged and not working. Nakhla and Haney hooked up a replacement generator to help pump out water from their basement. They also helped their neighbor redirect his drainage pipes. The neighbor, a Jewish agnostic, thanked them and said, “I don’t know what drives you, but I can see something different. If there’s anything I can do to repay you folks …” Shishko responded that he could invite him to visit for one hour and ask questions about Christianity. Church member Richard Schwarz later fixed their water heater and brought food. “We were thanking God for the help we got from the OPC,” said Bloch. “Without them, we would have had a disaster. The help we received was nothing short of a miracle.”
The next day, Haney returned to New York with deacon Rich Duggan, bringing generators, gasoline, cleaning supplies, construction bags, space heaters, fire logs, fans, and ice. The following Saturday, deacon David Askey, Ray Thistlethwaite, and Luke Brown, from Hatboro, Pennsylvania, arrived, carrying generators, water heaters, shop vacs, floor fans, space heaters, fifty gallons of gasoline, lights, and boxes of clothes. They worked in Mrs. Rubin’s basement, hauling out a bed, dolls, a swollen dresser, and 130 trash bags filled with belongings. They also removed paneling, sheet rock, and insulation. Raun Treible, an Orthodox Presbyterian who is a heating and air conditioning expert from Orlando, restored her heating. Volunteer Elisabeth Shishko, 16, remembered, “It’s sad. They lost everything (in the basement).” The relief team also asked her neighbors if they needed help. “The congregation demonstrated the love of Christ,” said Mrs. Rubin. “It’s not just talk. People there worked hard. It was a beautiful testimony to the world on behalf of Christ.”
The church women collected and sorted bags of winter clothing, piled up from floor to ceiling in the church basement. Though they were without power, the Shishkos housed Treible and Rick Dickinson, an OP minister and retired Air Force chaplain from Bangor, Maine. Dickinson ministered to the victims, both physically and spiritually, including preaching on Psalm 23 Sunday evening. “You need someone to minister to you,” said Shishko. At Nakhla’s request, Treible came to New York the following Thursday. “My talent wasn’t evangelism and preaching,” he said. “I try to make things more livable. I adopted Isaiah’s philosophy of willingness: Here I am. Send me.”
Dickinson arrived the next day with eight filled gasoline containers. “I’m grateful that the OPC is willing to invest the time, energy, and resources in being prepared and poised to respond, which enables you to respond quickly,” said Dickinson. “It provides a healthy way for those not immediately impacted by an event to weep with those who weep.”
Elder Al Zarek serves as the OPC’s New York site coordinator. “My function is to try to find out what the needs are and to make arrangements to help in any way I can,” he said. “It’s work dealing with the church first and then outreach. (The relief work) is hard but rewarding.”
Also on Long Island, Meindert Ploegman, pastor of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Bohemia, helped out member Matt Fleischer, who lived on the waterfront. Fleischer sent his wife and three children to a motel, parked his car on higher ground, and then stayed in his home, hauling stuff into the attic until the water came. He waded through waist-high water to a nearby hill. They lost everything in their ranch home. Neighbors helped with the cleanup. Ploegman spent a day removing nails and sheet rock. He offered to send a crew to help rebuild, but Fleischer is first trying to settle with insurance and FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “It’s only things,” said Fleischer.
The destruction reinforced for Ploegman that: “A man’s life doesn’t consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
On one of New Jersey’s barrier islands, Redeemer OPC sits midway between the ocean and the bay in Seaside Heights. When the bay and the ocean met in the middle of the island, it submerged the basement of the church building they rent. Couches, cabinets, tables, and chairs sailed into the hallway. This was especially difficult for the church, which has no pastor or church officers, but member Charlie Farrell stepped in to serve as site coordinator.
“It’s a war zone,” said Charlie’s wife, Elena, who saw the National Guard and police from many states guarding against looters.
Deacon (and CDM member) Kenley Leslie and his wife, Sarah, from Morgantown, West Virginia, drove their RV to the area to help with the cleanup. Without special skills, Sarah Leslie knows she can at least remove drywall and yank out nails. “Once you’re in a situation, you’ll be able to do what needs to be done,” she said, as she cleaned out the kitchen of Josephine DeFeis’s home. “The willingness to serve is more important than your skill set.”
James Hulbert, an RPCNA construction worker from New York, also helped. Josephine DeFeis appreciated the volunteers who helped her cope with her loss. “I had a beautiful condo. Now everything is trash,” she said. “I’m thankful and blessed (by the help).”
OP member Dave Weller and his boarder stayed in his home on Barnegat Bay during Sandy until water started shooting through his walls. He shut off the electricity and waded through two feet of water to a neighbor’s home. Later he found his house covered in soot and pieces of burnt wood—the debris from three summer homes that burned to the ground a few houses away.
“You always see these things happening on TV, but you don’t really know what those people have gone through until you experience it,” said Weller. “If everything is ordained by God, we’re feeling the wrath of God at times. I thank the Lord my house is still here and needs to be repaired.”
Deacon Ed Dubravsky, an electrician from Dover, New Hampshire, worked on Weller’s home. “God doesn’t give us a talent just to use on ourselves,” said Dubravsky. “We should use it to help our brothers and sisters. This is how I can help.”
One Saturday, deacon Jesse Kafka arranged for ten volunteers from Medford and Bellmawr, New Jersey, to join three volunteers from Bangor, Maine, and five from Salem County, New Jersey, led by Jeremy Patrick, in cleaning Weller’s home, two other houses, and hauling and chopping fallen trees on other properties. “The people are responding to an immense need,” said Kafka. “The Lord put it in their hearts that we don’t want to abandon people in their time of need and to show the love of Christ through actual, practical love.”
“They’ve been very, very good,” said Weller, changing his mind on whether his small OP church should merge with an independent congregation. “In my heart, I want to remain OPC,” said Weller, who appreciates the denominational support that independent congregations don’t have.
The OPC’s response to Sandy is different than it was seven years ago, when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. In 2005, the OPC began to develop a denomination-wide disaster relief effort, which led to the hiring of Nakhla two years ago. During his tenure, Nakhla has spearheaded the OPC’s response to earthquakes in Haiti and Japan and smaller tornadoes, hurricanes, and tropical storms in the U.S. Each disaster response has been unique. Chain saws were needed for Katrina, while shop vacs and generators were necessary for Sandy’s victims. “We’re there to respond first and foremost to the church and members of the church,” said Nakhla. “We try to assess the situation quickly, so we can give the church an informed plan of attack.”
CDM member Kenley Leslie appreciates Nakhla’s work. “It’s really great to have somebody directing things,” he said. “He can manage resources.” He also can seek to make sure the OPC’s disaster relief is the marriage of Word and deed.
“We’re never going to be the Red Cross,” observed Haney. “We’re only going to do work in conjunction with the gospel.”
The author is the editorial assistant for New Horizons. New Horizons, January, 2013.