Students Help Storm-Ravaged New York City Church

Click here to download photos from the New York City relief trip

Hurricane Sandy—nicknamed “The Perfect Storm” by some news agencies—provided eight Maranatha students a perfect opportunity for ministry.

The missions team, assembled in an eight-hour span during the evening of Nov. 1 and morning of Nov. 2, spent two days helping Bethel Baptist Fellowship in Brooklyn. The men performed cleanup work in the flooded church building and, with the help of their fellow students, provided clothing, food, and other essential items for distribution to the Sheepshead Bay community.

“Our team adopted the motto, ‘It’s not about you,’ ” said Stephen Gauthier, a Maranatha Baptist Seminary student from Portland, ME. “We were ready and willing, but we were just the vehicle. God helped that church accomplish a lot of physical work and a lot of spiritual work in a difficult situation. It was all about God.”

Gauthier was joined by Sajith Cherian, Luke Tanis, Adam Davis, Zachary McClanahan, Sebastian Basaldua, and Andrew Crum. Tim Jones coordinated the team’s blog from Watertown.

A Quick Mobilization

Gauthier had been following the reports of Hurricane Sandy and its devastating aftermath Thursday afternoon. He contacted Operation Renewed Hope director Jan Milton about the potential of assembling a team of volunteers from Maranatha to help. Milton said it was too soon after the storm for formal assistance work to be organized. However, just three hours later, Milton called to say he had been contacted by Bethel Baptist Fellowship pastor Jim Bickel.

Jan said it sounded like the situation there was pretty desperate,” Gauthier said. “That was at about 5 p.m.”

Between 5 p.m. Thursday and 3 a.m. Friday, the trip fell into place very quickly.

  • Cherian asked for volunteers on his Facebook page and contacted residence hall supervisors, who helped transmit information to potential team members.
  • Boxes were placed in each dormitory for clothing and food donations. Cash donations from students totaled nearly $800, including a plastic tub full of spare change.
  • Students gathered to pray for safe travel and a weekend of effective ministry.

“When I heard about it, God just laid that burden on my heart,” Basaldua said. “I just prayed that God would use us to show the people in New York how great He is.”

The team left at 3 a.m. in a Suburban pulling a large trailer filled with supplies and a gas-powered generator that would prove critical to their efforts. The 17-hour ride included a stop near Toledo to purchase more food and clothing for distribution. Both the vehicle’s gas tank and extra gas cans were filled in Pennsylvania due to a fuel shortage in the city.

The Faithful Generator

Cherian’s family in Bergenfield, NJ, hosted the team Friday night. Cherian’s neighbors heard Crum attempting to start the generator and brought over 10 large bags of clothes. At 12:40 a.m. Saturday, Crum finally got the generator to work by pushing a paper clip through a clogged carburetor jet.

“Andrew’s mechanical skills blew me away,” Tanis said, “but if he had found that problem right away, the neighbors wouldn’t have heard and wouldn’t have known to bring over the clothes. God worked everything out, and the generator ran non-stop all weekend.”

The team arrived Saturday morning in Brooklyn to a scene Gauthier described as “apocalyptic.” The sidewalks were filled with trash and debris. There was no electricity. Seawater and sewage had flooded basements, creating health risks. Some residents waited in line for hours to buy gasoline. Others wandered the streets, looking for needed items that had long ago disappeared from store shelves.

“Seeing lower Manhattan completely dark was amazing to me, but what you really noticed was the silence,” Cherian said. “We were driving through New York City and you heard almost no sounds at all.”

The water level at Bethel Baptist Fellowship, located only about 900 feet from the bay, had flooded the building’s crawlspace and risen 19 inches in the sanctuary areas that host services in both Russian and English.

The exhausted pastor and a handful of church members and friends were left with what appeared an insurmountable task.

Getting to Work

The all-important generator was started, providing electricity for power tools, fans, and lights for the building’s interior. Team members donned safety masks and gloves and went to work. Water-soaked chairs and other furniture were carried out. Team members took turns chipping away at buckled linoleum tile, then collected the pieces and putting them into some of the more than 150 bags of trash that left the building during the next two days. The bottom two feet of each interior wall were cut away and wet insulation removed. A non-functioning bathroom was dismantled.

Church members insisted on conducting a prayer service Sunday morning in spite of the building’s condition and also searched for an effective method for outreach into the church’s devastated community. Team members spent Saturday evening designing and printing invitations to the Sunday service in English and Russian. When they returned Sunday morning, the students passed out the flyers throughout the neighborhood. More than 90 attended the service.

“That service was so powerful,” Gauthier said. “It felt like what a house service must have felt like in 40 A.D.”

Church members distributed donated food and clothing in their neighborhoods, put together “care packages,” and helped set up a table in front of the church where free coffee and bagels were offered along with Christian literature.

The students remained at the church through Sunday afternoon, removing tile and soaked drywall in other areas of the building. When they left, the final can of gasoline was given to the husband of a woman who had recently joined Bethel.

The team left New Jersey at 3 a.m. Monday, bringing with it 430 New Testaments in Hebrew and Russian that will be sold to provide another cash donation to the church.

What Happens Next

Bickel said a snowstorm earlier this week dumped another 300 gallons of water through a leaky roof and into the church. The lease agreement for the rented property indicates that all interior repairs are the church’s responsibility and the church had no flood insurance. Volunteers from a church in Florida are scheduled to arrive next week to help install new drywall, but the entire subfloor may yet need to be replaced.

Readers can donate by going to the Operation Renewed Hope website and clicking on the Network for Good icon located near the top of the home page.

“The Maranatha guys were a great advertisement for the school and for the Lord,” Bickel said. “I can’t say enough positive things about them. They had their heart into it. We feel like they’re part of us.”