Ask any pastor, and they will quickly tell you there are moments in ministry that you simply cannot train for or expect.
Right now, several pastors in the Louisiana Conference are adjusting to a new appointment in a new area and, all the while, coping with the arrival of a very unwelcome guest named Hurricane Barry.
Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey says the first 90 days are crucial in a pastors new appointment as pastors have to quickly learn their mission field, get to know church leaders and members as well as community leaders.
"When you add a tropical storm, hurricane or any other disaster to the mix, the complexities are accelerated and the learning curve becomes a bit steeper," she says. "As pastors engage in the preparation and response to a disaster, their response and ministry of presence are crucial. In many ways, it can be a gift and has the potential to set the tone for the pastor's appointment."
So, while no one ever wants to begin their appointment responding to a disaster it certainly has the potential to accelerate their connection to the congregation and to the community and Bishop Harvey says, "It is the perfect opportunity to 'offer them Christ'."
"This week has certainly been an adventure," says Rev. Colleen Bookter, pastor of Algiers United Methodist Church and Belle Chase United Methodist Church. "My first service at my two-point charge was actually a funeral on Saturday, and by Friday, I was filling sandbags in Algiers before hunkering down for the storm."
As the floodwaters rose, Bookter found herself wading through water herself as she drove her car to higher ground. It wasn't long until she received a phone call from the church, "They told me, 'the church basement is taking in water. We have water vacuums to clean up. Just wanted to let you know.' The text was calm and casual because apparently, the basement/fellowship hall took on water a few months ago as well."
Before long, scheduled activities at the church were canceled and church members were grabbing shop vacs and push brooms.
"It was amazing to see everyone working together for their church home," Bookter remembers. "As far as I know, no one even put out a call for people to come to the church to help. They just knew that if 6-8 inches of rain fell in 3 hours that the church might be in bad shape, so they showed up. It was inspiring, and it made me really thankful to get to be a part of this community of servant leaders."
While the phrase 'baptism by fire' might come to mind, for the events surrounding Hurricane Barry, Bookter would likely replace 'fire' with 'community.'
"For me, my faith is best nurtured in community," she says "So having seven people show up at the church within the first hour, most of whom came without being contacted, that showed me the servant hearts of my parishioners and the tight-knit community that I am stepping in to."
"It says a lot about our future together"
Meanwhile, in Buras, Trinity United Methodist Church and the rest of Plaquemines Parish were dealing with an official mandatory evacuation.
Rev. Gaynel Baham has been a life-long resident of Buras and knows all too well how to evacuate a storm, but she is also the first to tell you – evacuating is never easy.
"It can bring on anxiety and stress to even a veteran," she says. "For us, it is just what we have to do."
But, for Baham, this particular storm brought with it something new, her appointment to Trinity Methodist Church in Buras. It didn't take long though for Baham and everyone at Trinity to fall right into place as they began securing the property.
"A group of members met at the church to pick up and secure music equipment in the loft," she said. "Just when I thought we had taken care of everything at the church, I returned home only to get a phone call from a member saying that she and her husband returned to the church to pick up and secure five garbage cans."
Baham says it's all part of the process, a process that includes readying the church for a storm and, at the same time, readying herself for a future with her new congregation.
"The fact that this community and I have been through so much already just says a lot about our church and our future together," she says.
Baham admits it's easy to get overwhelmed when a storm is headed straight for your church but quickly points out that she finds refuge in Scripture. "During this time, I try to stop, walk away and turn to Mark 4:39-41," she says. "These scriptures cover so much for me at a time like this. Just to close my eyes and listen to Jesus, tell me, 'Quiet down,' and there was a great calm. This covers the personal, the professional, the hurricanes, even the storms in my own life. I need this Scripture, and I thank Him for it!"
"You have little time to think about being new"
Meanwhile to the west, just as Rev. Juan Huertas was settling into his new appointment at Houma United Methodist Church, Houma residents themselves were settling in for whatever Barry would bring.
“We have done all we can to have the campus and parsonage ready,” says Huertas. “I am thankful that the people of First United Methodist Houma are very familiar with these rhythms.”
Huertas himself has served in south Louisiana and is familiar with storm preparation. In fact, he’s quick to lean on his past experience for the new experience in Houma.
“I think these moments give you an opportunity to connect with your congregation,” he said. “As we were making phone calls yesterday to our most vulnerable members, as we were assessing our resources and getting updates from Parish Officials we have little time to think about being new, instead you do ministry as you are used to.”
Huertas says settling in is always difficult.
“But when these type of things happen,” he says. “I am reminded of how important the body of Christ is and how no matter where it is located the people of God are the people of God and God uses this body and I am honored and blessed to be pastor.”
Huertas has been finding rest in the psalms. “That’s my soul’s go-to place at times like these and they always deliver. This morning I shared Psalm 46:1-3, ‘God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble. That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart, when the mountains crumble into the center of the sea, when its waters roar and rage, when the mountains shake because of its surging waves.’”
"We often say ministry comes in the interruptions"
Hurricane Barry made landfall just south of Lafayette as it crossed over Intracoastal City. Lafayette is no stranger to flash flooding as the torrential rains of the 2016 Baton Rouge Flood hit areas as far west as Lafayette.
Rev. Jon Tellifero may be new to the area, but the new pastor of Covenant Methodist Church knows this all too well.
"The major concern of Lafayette is flash flooding," Tellifero says. "In 2016 we had historic flooding without having a direct hit of a hurricane. Make no mistake - we are organizing to help."
Sometimes that organizing means switching to Plan B. Covenant was in the midst of transforming their family life center for an upcoming Vacation Bible School when Barry decided to interrupt.
"As we were making final preparations for VBS, we found ourselves at a crossroad: go with our regular plan and stay oblivious to what was going on in our community or respond to what was most obvious. Thank God we chose to respond to the obvious need; relief to one another because of Hurricane Barry."
For Tellifero, it was an easy choice in the midst of what has been a difficult few months. Tellifero moved his family to Lafayette just 11 days ago. On the morning after the move, he received word that his father passed away. And now, Barry has arrived. Despite what might seem like a chaotic month, Tellifero sees it all as a blessing.
"It is absolutely clear that we are here 'for such a time as this'. We know that, in the strangest way, God has given us the possibility of assisting people struck by Barry," Tellifero says. "We often say 'ministry comes in the interruptions.' Well, here's an interruption!"
Tellifero remembers hearing about 'Covenant Love' when he first moved to town. "This congregation believes they exist to care for their neighbors. We are doing this already. We are sharing dry parking places, food, prayers and counsel already, even though Barry hasn't wreaked havoc yet,: he said in a recent Facebook post. "Why? Because we believe God loves everyone and that we are to be God's person where we are today. That is Covenant Love!"
Tellifero went on to share a photo of the Cajun Navy, volunteer Louisianians who deploy when ready to serve and help others in an emergency. But in the sharing of that photo, Tellifero said Covenant United Methodist Church is now the Covenant Navy.
It's clear - Tellifero is leaning on the promise of Jesus while the winds of Barry hammer his new hometown.
"I am buoyed by the promises that Jesus can brace us against these harsh winds," he says. "The gates of hell will not prevail against us. [Mt. 16:18] This gate of Barry will not overcome us. Rather, in the overcoming grace of God, we are making plans and preparing to this present darkness with grace and hope. We will help our neighbor!"