The following was posted in an email by Fr. Steve Schaftlein, pastor of St. Francis Xavier in Henryville
Thursday – June 28 – An Update – Identity & Mission – A Partnership of Hares and Tortises
The weeks following the March 2 tornado were marked by two counter balancing experiences. First there was the overwhelming sense of loss. Two thousand families suffered total loss or severe damage to their homes. We dwelt in the midst of a shattered community without heat, light, or electricity. All around us were the physical signs of desolation. Yet in the midst of this were spiritual signs of hope. Thousands of volunteers from the outside began to arrive within hours of the tragedy. They brought helping hands and a spirit of hope. They brought financial and material resources to address the immediate needs. Our sense of loss was balanced by an overwhelming experience of the God-given goodness of humanity.
During this first stage of the disaster response we had a very clear mission. We literally followed the Gospel mandate. Matthew 25:35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, 25:36 naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ I don’t think I’ve ever experienced so profoundly both the depth and the clarity of the Gospel mission. In a sense it was an addictive experience as everyone pitched in to help. There was a sense of community and togetherness that we long for from the depths of our souls. A group of volunteers who had spent the first 9 days with the effort returned for a visit. They had been touched and changed by the experience. They couldn’t let go of it. They had to stop by one more time before making closure.
As we moved into April and May , the more subtle and less clear long term reality set in. Carpet baggers made visits to the area trying to take advantage of the people. The professional “knights of the road” became a larger part of the people asking for help. These professionals went from church to church trying to milk the system of everything they could. Some tried to come back on daily basis to fill up their cars with material goods that they would later sell in yard sales. They were a distraction from addressing the real needs of those who had truly suffered from the tornado.
Bureaucratic red tape became an obstacle to repairing and building homes. The insurance companies quickly approved a few percentage points of the damaged homes for repairs. Then the approvals ground to a halt. It became almost impossible to find a house to work on. Legal hassles presented themselves – flood plains, septic and sewage issues made it difficult to get rebuilding permits. Our mission morphed from feeding the hungry and clothing the naked to helping people fill out forms. Having helped people rediscovery hope after the initial tragedy, we now needed to help people maintain hope for the long haul.
During the first month after the tornado, all of the churches and organizations came together and worked seamlessly to answer the immediate needs. Goods and volunteers were freely shared back and forth for we shared a common vision and mission. This became more difficult as we moved into the second phase. Some groups were better at rolling up their sleeves and using a hammer. Some churches had facilities that could more readily handle the long term needs. Some stepped back a bit to reflect on their role. During this period of re-evaluation there was some loss of connectedness as each group sought to clarify its sense of mission and identity.
During this period of searching, I found it difficult to pray about and report on where we were going. In many ways I wasn’t sure. We didn’t have any quick fixes or solutions. I only knew that our role was definitely not that of the hare. In the race to recovery, we were better equipped to be the turtle. And, hopefully this would be a race where both the turtle and the hare will arrive at the finish line together. The real struggle was with our own sense of identity and mission.
The last 3 weeks have been a time of rediscovering and clarifying our mission and sense of identity as a turtle. Slowly but surely we are laying a firm foundation to address the fundamental long term needs of both our parish and community. Landlocked with only one acre of land, we didn’t have facilities or space to take on a larger share of the recovery effort. Towards the end of May, our neighbors gave us the first opportunity to buy the two pieces of property immediate adjacent to St. Francis. The family had survived a great loss. Their home which had been in the family for decades was shattered and broken. Their once meticulous park like yard was a bramble of broken branches and stumps. Only their garage had survived the tornado. Their rental property on the other side of St. Francis was shattered but structurally sound. Together these two properties would give us the ability make a significant contribution to the recovery effort. At the same time we could for the first time have a separate room for each of our faith formation classes.
A few years back we had started a future growth and expansion fund. Over the years we had accumulated enough funds to meet the purchase price of these properties. With the permission of the archdiocese, we closed on these properties on May 11. Since then we’ve demolished the shattered home, landscaped the yard, and created two graveled parking lots. Both the garage and the rental were gutted and now have new roofs. The rental will be ready for occupancy by the 4th of July. In addition to religious ed classes, it will house offices for the March 2 Recovery efforts. The Administrative Office will be located here. Also, the Case Management Offices run by Catholic Charities will be housed here. The garage with about 1,600 sq feet will be a “Work & Repair Center”, it will house building materials and tools for the cooperative efforts of Catholic Charities, St. Francis and St. Michael to repair and build houses. We will work together with the other churches and groups in the area.
It is important to note that except for the landscaping all of the work has been done by volunteers. Since the end of school we have hosted or worked with about a dozen volunteer groups including Fr. Rick Ginther and his parishioners from Terre Haute, New Albany Deanery Youth Ministry, Archdiocesan Youth Ministry, Catholic Work Camp, and a Presbyterian adult group from Baltimore. They have worked through the hot days without complaints – including today’s 100+ temperatures.
On Saturday we will have the pleasure of the Archdiocesan seminarians and friends helping out. They will join our parishioners who come every Saturday. We have established Saturday as “volunteer day” for both St. Michael and St. Francis. Participating in this day are the Latino parishioners of St. Michael.
On May 19 a contract was signed with AACI of Indianapolis to repair the damage to St. Francis. This week they’ve begun to bring in materials to start the process. After mass on Sunday we will remove the Eucharist from the tabernacle and relocate our “church” to the basement.
Approximately 2,000 structures were severely damaged or destroyed in Indiana. If two of these structures are repaired or rebuilt every day, it will take approximately 3 years to complete the repairs. Three months into this effort perhaps a little more than 12% of the homes have been repaired or rebuilt.