By Jim Nieman
In the end, no one in Florida—and virtually no property—was safe when Hurricane Irma tore through the Sunshine State on Sunday and into Monday, September 10 and 11.
Many churches started warning people about the potential dangers of the storm on Tuesday, September 5.
Crosspoint Christian Church in Cape Coral, for example, sent out this message via Facebook at 12:32 p.m. that day: “We need help getting Crosspoint ready to ride out the storm – moving furniture, playground equipment, securing the campus. . . .” By early the next morning, Crosspoint lead pastor Jeff Swearingen and leaders at the church had decided to cancel all church activities—other than hurricane preparations and response—through Monday, September 11.
The hurricane passed just east of Cape Coral, located on the Gulf Coast 35 miles north of Naples, over which Irma’s eye passed.
On Monday, the church posted on Facebook: We hope all of our Crosspoint family has weathered the storm and is OK. In the next few days Crosspoint will be doing our best to organize to meet the needs of anyone in our church family or community. . . . The Crosspoint building did not suffer any big damage. We did have a few leaks but it appears only minimal amounts of water got in. We are incredibly thankful for God’s protection and need to express our thanks to Him today!”
Later came this post: “Crosspoint is assembling teams to help with local cleanup and relief for our Crosspoint family and community.” All church events are now canceled through Friday.
That seemed to be the template for most churches in the state: preparations for the hurricane through most of the last week, canceling of weekend services, leveraging communications and methods of helping one another before and after the hurricane, and then checking on individuals, damage assessments, cleanup, and responding to various needs after the storm exited Florida and entered states further north.
Several churches have established ways to donate to Hurricane Irma relief. Visit their individual websites to learn more or go to the International Disaster Emergency Service website at www.ides.org. But from a distance, it appears the main financial blow suffered by most of these churches resulted from canceling weekend services.
Here’s a taste of how a dozen Christian churches in Florida prepared for and responded to Hurricane Irma. And we’ll say up front that it appears no church building suffered serious damage, with the possible exception of Christ’s Church of Jacksonville. Also, we didn’t see any social media reports of any serious injuries to any church members as a result of the storm. (Of course, we weren’t able to check in on every church in the state.)
Jason Cullum, lead pastor of Christ’s Church of Jacksonville (northeast Florida), posted a video clip on Facebook early on the morning after Hurricane Irma passed through (Monday, September 11). In it, he said: “The church is in pretty rough shape. We’ve got a lot of water up here—a lot of water damage. And some other stuff I’ll post online. The lake is as high as I’ve ever seen it before. But you know what? it’s stuff and I’m glad people are OK. That’s all that really matters. . . . If you have some needs, we’d love to know about those needs. Anything we can do to help out as a church.”
The church has five campuses, with Mandarin likely being the one with the damage of which Cullum was speaking. Jacksonville is on the Atlantic Ocean, far from the center of Irma, but that region suffered from heavy rains and a strong storm surge.
The church posted this message on Facebook on Tuesday afternoon:
“NO POWER? COME RECHARGE AT CC MANDARIN!
“The atrium is open at Christ’s Church Mandarin campus (6045 Greenland Rd.). We have power, AC, free coffee, wifi, and lots of tables if you want to come recharge yourself or your devices. Doors are open until 6 PM tonight and re-open starting at 9am tomorrow. Come on over!”
Access to air conditioning is important in Florida at this time of year. Tuesday’s heat was sweltering, according to TV reports. There are widespread power outages throughout the entire state.
On Tuesday night, Christ’s Church posted a rundown for Wednesday of all the serving projects at their four campuses.
“I am so encouraged by all the stories I’m hearing and posts on social media I am seeing,” said Callum. “CC you are owning #Lovewhereyoulive I am so proud of you all! We are just beginning this cleanup. We will keep you informed daily of needs and projects. The best thing you can continue to do is when you see a need make it happen! If you identify needs that are too big for you and your circle to accomplish, please contact the church and we will supply a few more volunteers.”
The church is accepting donations as a result of Irma. “Your continued generosity will enable us to serve more local needs related to Irma and enable us to repair damages that our own facilities incurred as a result of the storm, some of which were significant,” the church website states. “Give online at www.Christs.Church/Give – For text-to-give, text ‘CCGIVE’ to 1-206-859-9405.”
“We put together some first responder teams before the hurricane hit,” said Jim Book, senior minister with Kissimmee Christian Church, just south of Orlando. These teams had folks designated to go out and help lead the cleanup at members’, neighbors’, and friends’ homes after the storm hit. But, as it turned out, the leaders of a couple of these teams suffered some of the worst damage at their homes of any in the church.
All in all, Book said, “It’s been great just watching the mobilization of our people.” He cited some specific examples.
One of the church’s staff members didn’t have much cleanup at his house, Book said, and he noticed a neighbor of his, who is pregnant, was working to clean up her yard, so he went down to help. The neighbor was thankful, and explained that her husband battles depression and that the stress of the hurricane had caused him to shut down. The staff member, who is also a licensed counselor, mentioned that the church could offer some services. She responded, “Well, we’ve been looking for a church.” So, the hurricane cleanup was “an opportunity for him to witness,” Book said.
In another instance, an elder noticed that a neighbor who has back problems needed some help cleaning up his yard. The husband, unable to work, was inside, and his wife had gone out to run errands, so the elder went down and cleaned their lot, Book said. “He’d been looking for a way to connect with them anyway.”
That’s how things have gone, Book said. “We have organized work teams from the church, but we’re encouraging people to help neighbors.”
Book said he will preach on Lazarus this weekend. He noted Jesus’ words when Mary and Martha sent word to him that Lazarus was sick: “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). Book said, in turn, the hurricane was something he hopes no one in Florida will have to go through again, but “God is being glorified in the church’s reaction to it.”
In one other example, a nearby senior housing facility had to move its residents on Tuesday, so it contacted the church, which provided one of its buses and a church member to drive it, Book said.
As for the church building itself, there were only minor leaks, Book said. Power came back on Tuesday. The membership suffered with lots of tree damage and some water damage, but minimal damage to their dwellings.
During the hurricane itself, Kissimmee Christian opened its building to seniors and members who live in manufactured homes, “so about 20 folks rode out the storm at the church.”
A post on Facebook broached the subject of giving: “Cancelling our weekend services will tremendously impact our church ministry budget. We ask that if you haven’t participated in online giving before that you would do so and support your church during this crisis.” Here’s the link.
Real Life Christian Church, with eight sites mainly west of Orlando, is responding corporately and individually to help people in need, said lead pastor Justin Miller.
In discussions and prayer in preparation for the hurricane, “we were really encouraging folks not to worry so much about the threat but to seize the opportunity,” he said. “We were asking God to use it [the hurricane]” and the church’s response to help spread the Word.
The church, the largest in our fellowship in Florida (with average weekly attendance of 6,193 in 2016), has responded to the hurricane in many notable ways.
On Saturday, September 9, the church was able to deliver meals to a shelter that had a capacity for 500 people but was without means to feed them. “We do disaster relief all year long,” Miller said. “We have a mobile food pantry that has been a blessing in this emergency.”
A Facebook post explained: “We received an emergency call from The Salvation Army USA that one of the largest shelters in Lake County had no food. . . . The Red Cross won’t be coming in until after the storm so Real Lifers from our Mt. Dora campus answered the call to become the hands and feet of Jesus and delivered close to 5,000 meals to this shelter in need.”
The church was also able to help a group of young adult missionaries who were evacuated from their host homes in Tampa; the church found new host families for the missionaries and supplies were provided.
And just yesterday, Real Life’s Clermont campus became a temporary shelter for people with medical needs at the request of The Salvation Army USA.
And ever since the hurricane left and cleanup began, church members have been helping with cleaning, cutting, and clearing and with making sure people were OK. Miller said he has helped set up three generators, including one for an elderly couple this morning.
He said he hopes to help develop a listing of people who own generators so they can be matched with individuals who need a generator in time for the next disaster/major power outage.
And the same might hold true for chain saw owners.
The day after the storm, church workers were working to clear a big tree that had fallen, but the group needed a much larger chain saw, so Miller said he called “the redneck response team.” Within 45 minutes a friend arrived in a pickup truck “with the biggest chain saw you’ve ever seen.”
“The good ol’ boys in central Florida are some of the most helpful people you’ll ever meet.” (The main picture that goes above this article is of folks from Real Life clearing a downed tree from a yard.)
Miller said most of Real Life’s buildings suffered some degree of minor damage.
Real Life is trying to provide help to others, but one way to help Real Life is by giving via this link.
New Day Christian Church, Port Charlotte (on the Gulf Coast), is closed until further notice because it is being used as a shelter for oxygen-dependent patients. Here’s the entire newsworthy September 11 Facebook post by lead pastor Rusty Russell:
“Dear New Day family and friends, here are some important updates:
“1. Praise God for His protection and grace. Most homes in our community received no significant damage from Hurricane Irma. There is still widespread power outage in our community but many of us even have our power back on.
“2. Charlotte County is opening the shelter THIS AFTERNOON for oxygen dependent patients and other special needs patients. Our local hospitals have been overwhelmed by the demand and our shelter is needed to alleviate the overcrowded conditions. If you are a shelter volunteer, please head to the church or contact Lisa Hayes asap. If you have any questions regarding the Special Needs Shelter please call 941-833-4000.
“3. All church activities, programs, bible studies etc. are closed/canceled until further notice, will reopen when shelter is no longer in place.
“4. If your home was flooded or damaged we will do all we can to help in the cleanup efforts. So far a very minimal number of New Day families experienced flood or wind damage, so hopefully we can help everyone in need. If you have a need or are willing to help meet needs, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I love y’all and am so proud of the way we are weathering this storm together! Let’s look for opportunities to help our neighbors in the name of Jesus.”
Later that day (September 11), the church posted this on Facebook: “We can’t say that the last week hasn’t been stressful but we can say that God heard our prayers, was with us through the storm, and delivered us to safety. God is faithful and our refuge. No matter how severe the storm, when you’re with God there is always a rainbow waiting at the end.”
The post was accompanied by a picture of the church with a rainbow over it.
Generations Christian Church, a megachurch with campuses in Trinity and Spring Hill (northwest of Tampa), provided information to its membership in the days leading up to the September 10 landfall of Hurricane Irma: Storm predictions, how to volunteer, news that the church was a potential overflow site for evacuees, phone numbers and a listing of emergency-related websites, how to donate, what to donate, and a plea for prayer. (Many churches provided this same type of information.)
On September 10, GCC posted Psalm 91 on Facebook.
And then, the morning after the storm, the church posted this: “Generations has weathered the storm at both campuses. There is some cleaning up to do but we will be ready to come together this coming weekend for worship service. We are praying for you, our communities and all those that have been impacted by this storm.”
On Tuesday, a post indicated the church was serving as a temporary shelter and needed volunteers to assist with this.
Greg Johnson is lead pastor.
Community Christian Church, Fort Lauderdale, posted information on its website and via Facebook in the week leading up to the hurricane that services were canceled and that its building did not meet hurricane shelter standards. (We didn’t see any of our church buildings that served as “official” shelters during the hurricane.) “[The church] is in contact with local city leaders and officials so we can best serve the community after the impact of the storm. We are ready to be the church and help those in need! We will continue to use our website and social media to post updates.”
The church also offered information on how to volunteer and encouraged members to pray.
At 6:19 a.m. Monday, the church posted this on Facebook: “We are thanking God this morning for getting us through Hurricane Irma!! We know power is out at the church building and are suspecting little damage, we will know once the curfew is lifted at 10 am and we’re able to make it there.
“From your FB posts we know many of you still have no power and many have sustained damage to trees and have lots of debris to cleanup. And as a church family we would like to provide assistance to each other during this time of need.
“If you’re available and willing to help others this week please send an email . . . and let us know when you’re available to help. Let us know if you own a chainsaw you’re willing to let us use to provide assistance with cleanup. Be the hands and feet of Jesus and offer assistance to your neighbors.
“If you need assistance, please don’t hesitate to ask. Either email us at email@example.com or simply post your name as a comment to this post.”
Subsequent posts indicated the church had its power back (Tuesday), was arranging for workers to help in areas of need, and that regularly scheduled activities for the week were canceled through Friday.
Scott Eynon is pastor.
Legacy Christian Church in Lakeland (between Tampa and Orlando) was the only church we found that had a service in their building on Sunday. Brent Newland, the children’s minister, presented a devotional message and the music minister led worship.
Newland explained that he and the music minister were planning to spend the night at the church and leaders decided to open the building to members who live in mobile homes. Since people would be there Sunday morning, it seemed natural to have a service. Fifteen people stayed overnight and about 40 attended the Sunday morning service, he said.
Power at the church went out at the height of the storm and remained off for less than 24 hours, Newland said.
The church and its youth house suffered some minimal damage. A church custodian lost the roof off of his mobile home.
The church had been planning a 24-hour prayer vigil onsite from noon Friday to noon Saturday, but because of the circumstances, it was decided to focus the prayer on the coming storm. Also, people prayed from their homes rather than coming to the church.
The power at the church came back on relatively quickly, Newland said, so the church has opened up its building to folks in the community in need of air conditioning and Wi-Fi.
The city of Lakeland experienced 80 mph winds, and while the eye of Hurricane Irma had broken up by the time it reached Lakeland, the city was at or very near the center of the storm.
Steve Newland is senior minister.
John Hampton, lead pastor with Journey Christian Church, Apopka (north of Orlando), wrote a blog that explained many of things expressed by other churches in various ways in the days leading up to Hurricane Irma (access it at http://journeychristian.com/hurricane-irma-edition/). Hampton touched on these major themes: cancellation of services and activities, at-home worship opportunities, an online worship opportunity, plans for an online devotion called “A Savior for the Storms,” a plea to take care of your family and check on your neighbors, a note that Journey is not designated as an approved storm shelter (but directing church members to sites are approved as shelters), and a notation that closing the church would adversely affect finances. The message closed with a written prayer.
This was the opening line to Hampton’s blog post: “Last week in this very column I wrote about helping the folks in Houston with Hurricane Harvey recovery. This week we are preparing for a hurricane to hit right here! Funny how fast things change.”
On Tuesday night, the church posted another message on Facebook that said, in part: “As we continue to pray for safety and quick recovery from the recent hurricane, we also want to help connect those in need with those that can help. . . .”
Journey is accepting donations to hurricane relief here.
Salty Church, Ormond Beach, on September 5 offered an impressive post on Facebook about what to do in preparation for Hurricane Irma, and what to take with you if you evacuated (keep in mind, September 5 was likely the first day any of our Florida churches mentioned the hurricane).
On September 8, lead pastor Robbie O’Brien, who with his family had evacuated to Florida’s Panhandle, addressed the congregation via Facebook. He spoke of the unsettling, fearful, confusing situation Floridians were facing: “I think it’s all born out of the idea . . . you know, control is an illusion. We like that feeling, but it’s not real. God is in control, we’re not. The only thing you’re in control of is your attitude and your effort. So do your part, take care of each other all through this. And God will do his part.”
O’Brien offered subsequent video postings, including a front-porch sermon, in the following days.
Central Christian Church, St. Petersburg, reported via Facebook that as of about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, it was still without power.
Sarasota Christian Church’s website, ironically, continues to announce it will be collecting donations for Hurricane Harvey victims in Texas on September 3 and 10. Keep in mind, SCC very nearly took a direct hit from Hurricane Irma.
On Tuesday morning, the church posted this on Facebook: “We survived Hurricane Irma. God is so good! We have lots of tree limbs on the playground and in the back parking lot. If you have some time this week, please help us clean up the branches and get ready for Sunday.
“We are looking forward to seeing everyone on Sunday.”
Lee Robison is senior pastor.
Jim Nieman is managing editor of Christian Standard.