On October 10, everything changed. Today is December 10. Many of the changes are encouraging, while others remain discouraging. So, here’s an honest look at what has been transpiring in our congregation in Panama City.
Encouraging: Immediately following Hurricane Michael, and still today, many of our church families and personal friends reached out and have sent financial support so that FCOG can address the large deductible we have with our insurance. (Blessed that we’re insured. Many churches here did NOT have insurance and sustained much greater damage.) The funds have also been used to meet the needs of those who lost homes, who had to replace contents, who lost jobs and needed rent, who had to relocate, and who needed encouragement.
We’ve had literally a thousand or more neighbors and strangers walk through our doors to seek help, retrieve supplies, find encouragement, and share their stories. And there are many stories. So many of our friends sent physical supplies…from water (at first), to ice (it was hot!), tarps (as we progressed), warm clothes (now), sheets (just came in) and gift cards (for the holidays). The needs have been fluid and met at every opportunity. We know that some of you have contacted us and are standing ready to hear what the needs are so that you may respond accordingly. We have downsized our distribution now as the needs are less physical at this point.
The greatest need has been and will remain having people who can come and bring their expertise. We have had groups from all over Florida, Indiana and Alabama come already! Some have paid for meals to feed the neighborhood and others have shown up to grill and serve burgers to them. They have raked yards, tarped roofs, carried debris, provided shelter, delivered supplies, repaired doors, removed trees, supported walls, packed homes, given rides and prayed prayers.
We’ve had worship services on the porch (not really safe at this point), on the lawn (when it was warmer) and now in the sanctuary (which hasn’t sustained much damage). We have had visitors who were FEMA workers, insurance adjusters, builders, and contractors…even some from the neighborhood. With the holidays upon us, we’ve put up a tree in the sanctuary and a few other decorations to help us feel “celebrative” - at least a little. Dan McCraw will be joining us this week to lead our worship service, followed by a holiday celebration brunch. The church is healthy with members taking care of one another and doing well – even though some have been displaced and are now technically homeless.
We have been able to offer the use of our facilities to others in need – and now have a counseling center in our church. We also have a homeschool co-op that is using our facility for meeting until the repairs to their usual facility are completed. As a result, we’ve made some great contacts with people and some connections that are useful to our rebuilding.
Discouraging: I don’t even like to write this part because I’m pretty much a “glass half full” person. But, let’s be serious. There is discouragement. It is cold. It rains a lot. There are long waits everywhere – even for a simple dinner at a restaurant. There are not a lot of retail stores open…unless you drive over the bridge (which now takes a very long time and uses up gasoline – which is the highest price in Florida). The roads are dark. The traffic is horrific. There is very limited internet - (I write from a coffee shop where I pay a very high price for a chai latte just to use the internet). But more importantly – trying to get responses from insurance companies (who are overwhelmed), trying to get laborers to do work (who are overwhelmed)…to give estimates (who are overwhelmed)…to fix plumbing (who are overwhelmed)…to start work on the roof (who are overwhelmed)…to reconstruct our facility (you get it). As a result, it seems like our church’s road to recovery just isn’t happening fast enough…at all. Our personal road to recovery is not fast, either. There just aren’t enough people here to address the great amount of needs around us – contractors, roofers, etc. Everyone has busy schedules, so that makes things take even longer. Some days the cold temps and the damp weather and destroyed landscape make the situation more bleak. And trying to remain “up” becomes tiresome. Being involved in recovery for two months now exposes one to those who are less “needy” and more “greedy” while you are aware of the desperation of the some who don’t know how to proceed. It brings discouragement. (And, yes, we know the Bible verses about discouragement – thank you very much.)
There’s a balance here…we see a little progress here and there, and we hear the “850 Strong” people of Panama City who testify to being overcomers. But we see the flip side, too. Those who have been able to visit say, “We had no idea! No one said it was this bad…it’s just not in the news.” We hear it. All. The. Time. And while that may be discouraging, it’s actually encouraging to know that others understand. And those folks give testimony to others who are, then, emboldened to come. We have friends, churches and groups from Florida, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Indiana scheduled to be here to work after the new year. They’ll sleep on air mattresses in the church and shower where we can find a place…sort of experiencing what many here now call “normal”. (So no apologies!)
So…that’s the truth of the matter. There’s a lot to do here. Many people are hurting and don’t have homes…or have homes that have a tarp over rafters…or are sleeping in campers in lots that are still filled with debris…and it’s going to be a loooong time before it’s over. What can YOU do? If the Lord should move on your heart to do something, contact us and we’ll be happy to help plan something with you! Meanwhile, please pray for the “850” folks (that’s the area code, by the way) – pray for the COURAGE to be strong in His strength!