Judith M. Dinsmore
Pastor Eric Hausler bought a generator this year, after living in South Naples for four hurricane seasons. “I figured I had dodged the bullet enough times,” Hausler laughed. He and his wife, Donna, moved to Florida in 2013 in order to plant a church.
The first worship service at mission work Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Naples, Florida, was held in November of that year.
“We’ve really been focusing on our neighborhood,” Hausler said. “We have about five hundred front doors.” Many of those homes are only occupied in the winter months by “snowbirds” who move north for the summer. That provided a unique outreach opportunity when winds from Hurricane Irma swept through the city on September 10.
The first week was about survival, Hausler explained. Much of the city had been evacuated in the face of dire forecasts predicting a Category 5 hurricane—in fact, a flood surge of six to nine feet was expected to come through the church’s neighborhood. The flooding was much less than predicted, but the wind was worse. Gusts of 140 miles per hour were recorded at the Naples Municipal Airport, right across the road from Christ the King.
“It was like a maze driving around town, trying to find a way to get from here to there. The tree damage was enormous,” Hausler said. After five days of using his brand-new generator, the power finally came back on. When it did, Hausler got busy.
The neighborhood already knew of him through his “sunrises and sunsets” posts to an online community bulletin board—he’d take a picture of the glorious morning or evening view and post it along with a line from a hymn or Scripture.
After Irma, he posted on the bulletin board that if any snowbirds living up north were wondering about the condition of their homes, he would ride over on his bike and take pictures for them. “You would think that we were angels sent from heaven!” he said. People he didn’t know were overjoyed at his simple offer, reflecting how high tensions were after the storm.
In the immediate aftermath, Hausler saw his ministry as stepping up to relieve that stress the storm created.
And he had help. A team from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Ada, Michigan (where Hausler previously served as pastor), came down and joined a family of Haitian brothers whom Hausler dubbed the “Haitian Hurricane Heroes.” With chainsaws and trucks, they cleared out wind damage, free of charge. After working in the yards and property of people from Christ the King, people related to their church, and people from the neighborhood, the team would stop and pray with the residents.
Many of the folks in the area don’t have a pastor, Hausler explained. They have no one to visit them in the hospital, no one to turn to in a time of distress. He sees it as an opportunity to be a chaplain of sorts to the whole neighborhood.
One neighbor was distraught over a tree that fell from a common area into her yard and thus was now her responsibility. “I told her, ‘We have this group of guys coming in; we’ll take care of it, OK?’” Hausler said. “She burst into tears. You’d think we had rescued her baby from the fire. People were just so on edge!”
Scarcity of gasoline was another stress-maker after Irma. When a Haitian woman Hausler knew heard that a nearby gas station was operational, she panicked, wondering how she could get gas. She turned to Hausler and asked in Creole if he had any gallon containers to borrow. “I had five in my car,” Hausler said. “I couldn’t very well say no!” She then had to wait in line twice for two hours to fill a two-and-a-half-gallon container at a station that had both walking lines and driving lines.
The work of the team from Ada and the Haitian Hurricane Heroes became so well known that when Hausler walked into a community board meeting with one of the team members, everyone cheered. “And all we did was help people cut up branches and trees!” Hausler laughed. “We were able to get to know so many of our neighbors.”
When a local reporter interviewed Hausler about the team from Michigan, she asked why—why did they come all the way down to Florida? Hausler answered by asking a question of his own, which didn’t make it into the paper.
“Why has God been so good to us? You look around the world and see people living in poverty and war-torn areas. Why do we have such a sweet life in west Michigan? Why do we have such a sweet life in Naples? Why has God blessed us? So that we would be a channel of God’s blessing to others.” That’s why the church in Ada sent a team, he said. That’s why they gave the team chainsaws and paid for their gas. Church members who couldn’t go themselves wanted to help. “God has blessed us to be a blessing.”
Irma was a stress not only on the neighborhood, but also on the Hauslers and Christ the King. Although the storm brought much good, Hausler said it also revealed to him his own weaknesses.
The dire predictions, the evacuations, and the damage to friends and members were difficult to absorb, especially one after another, after another. They don’t prepare you for that in seminary, he said.
When Hausler and Ryan Heaton, church-planting intern in Naples, visited homes to offer pastoral help, some residents were brought to tears as they described how out-of-town friends and family didn’t understand the difficulties of the hurricane. But that very difficulty brought those who experienced it closer together.
“The first Sunday after the hurricane, we sat in a big circle after church … to talk about the Lord’s faithfulness and then to talk about needs that people had. And that was a beautiful thing,” Hausler remembered.
Perhaps especially beautiful in a church plant blessed with an outsize proportion of international attendees—in a recent service, Christ the King had worshipers from twelve different countries, including Cuba, Ecuador, Jamaica, Haiti, South Africa, Malaysia, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Now, two months after Irma, Hausler feels that they are just beginning to get back in stride. The hurricane won’t affect Christ the King’s ministry significantly, other than that more people in the neighborhood will know about their church, he said. In the months to come, it will be ministry as usual: “The recipe isn’t complicated for building the Lord’s church. It is hard to stick to: preach the Word, pray, administer the Lord’s sacraments, fellowship with God’s people, love your neighbor, and tell others about the grace of God to you.”
Christ the King’s current prayer requests are that their members would be faithful and make the most of every opportunity to build the Lord’s church, and that they would continue to be a church that is filled with grace.
The author is managing editor of New Horizons. New Horizons, December 2017.