St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Rockville Centre, NY, was our first stop when members of the board of directors and staff of the General Board of Global Ministries headed out to Long Island on Saturday, April 13, for a day of service with Superstorm Sandy survivors. The church is one of five disaster-relief centers of the New York Annual (regional) Conference.
When I arrived, just ahead of the rest of the group, the parking lot was full, and children in white karate uniforms were coming and going with their parents as one martial arts class finished and another began. Pastor Robert Grimm told me that St. Mark's plays host to a wide variety of community groups-from Scouts to yoga to AA to drumming lessons and more. Hospitality is an important part of the congregation's mission and makes its members particularly suited for the intricate work of disaster response: coordinating volunteers with homeowner needs, hosting volunteer teams, and navigating the delicate emotional and spiritual terrain that survivors traverse after so massive a storm.
"We're a very busy church-and we have commitments, longstanding commitments, with the community groups that use our facilities. But we still have room [for disaster-relief volunteers]," Rev. Grimm said. "The only thing we don't have onsite are showers." So, volunteer groups, which may have as many as 15 participants, take turns showering at the parsonage. Grimm and his wife are happy to make that invitation.
"The teams that come to help out are some of the most gracious people and the most willing people to make sacrifices and just adapt to the situation," Grimm told me. In the six months since Sandy barged into the US East Coast, volunteer groups have come to St. Mark's from Virginia, Ohio, Maryland, Minnesota, Michigan, and the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN.
But the congregation has its own disaster-relief group as well-a core team of seven or eight early responders, mostly women, some of whom are still waiting for repairs to be made to their own storm-affected homes. "So you say, how can they do this when they're waiting for this or that, and I think it's an indication of how they sense people need help because they've been there, and they want to go out and they want to offer a helping hand," Rev. Grimm said.
Now, that might give you the impression that it was the storm that inspired the congregation's sense of mission. In reality, as Grimm explains, it was their sense of mission that inspired this congregation of some 70 regular Sunday worshipers to respond to their neighbors impacted by the storm.
"People come to church for a reason, and if you ask a dozen people, they may give you a dozen different reasons. But there is a central dynamic, I think, as to why people come to church: They want to be closer to God. They long for something in their lives that is fulfilling. They want to understand the gospel. Going out and helping people in need, and helping people get back into their homes and get back to some semblance of normalcy is so close to the gospel message that Jesus taught," Grimm said.
That mission, that desire to be of service, whether in response to a natural disaster or in opening church doors to the needs of the community at large, is, then, what spurs unity, depth, and vitality in a congregation-it's about self-giving, about growing into a caring community.
"We want every church to be hundreds of people, but small is not necessarily bad," he said. "The people who are here want to be here; the people who are here are family. The people who are here have a very strong relationship with one another, and that is because they share such fellowship and a sense of mission."