BY JEAN RUZICKA
In early June, 24 youth and five adult chaperones from Calvary Lutheran Church began their journey to New York to assist victims of Hurricane Sandy on Staten Island.
The Statue of Liberty greeted them each morning as they embarked on their mission, departing from Manhattan “to serve Christ.”
“It wasn’t a hard decision,” said Christina Mackley, a senior who was on her second mission trip with her church youth group. “I love to go places to help people.”
“It gives us a different view of the world, what life’s like” when catastrophe strikes, Isaac Kosel said.
“From rural Park Rapids to urban New York City, we quickly realized that life in New York was much different than life in Park Rapids,” youth pastor Dana Kocka said.
Their mission: To serve Christ by being like-minded and entrusting God with our entire beings, Kocka said.
The students left behind their cell phones and amenities of home. Seventy people shared a single shower in the church where they stayed.
“They were very quick,” said Heather Kniss, grinning, who graduated this spring. And sometimes nonexistent. “It made us more grateful.”
There was no air conditioning. “Sixteen guys shared a room. And we couldn’t open windows, Kosel said. “But we have no second thoughts.”
“We focused on our mission,” Mackley said.
Moms and dads learned of their kids’ ventures via a mass email from Kocka, creating a bit of anxiety for parents when the first message didn’t arrive for a couple of days. “We were busy getting into the routine,” Kocka explained.
A typical day began at 6:30 with breakfast at the church and packing lunches. They boarded a subway by 8 a.m. (rush hour), people often sharing their stories when they learned of the mission, and then a ferry bound for Staten Island.
“The ferry ride was the most relaxing part of the day,” said Tristan Breitweser, a sophomore, who was experiencing his first mission trip.
Upon arrival, they went to work, assisting the relief effort for the hurricane victims.
Much of their duties involved yard work, push lawnmowers used in some instances because the motorized machines were lost or damaged in the flood.
“It was incredibly powerful because the people are still trying to collect the pieces of their lives that were destroyed within minutes - and slowly put them back together,” Kocka said. “Lives were lost; homes were destroyed and contaminated water engulfed people’s homes and made their lives incredibly fragile.”
They were at all levels of grieving, he said, “from death to loss of material.”
“I felt I could relate to the people we were serving because their lives were like ours – until the hurricane turned their world upside down,” youth volunteer Spencer Adolphson said.
“The life they knew was taken away in an instant,” said Mackley.
“A lot of people needed to talk,” Kocka said.
The media reported only a fraction of the total deaths that truly occurred, he said. “People from the neighborhoods we worked in, talked openly and sadly about the bodies that floated past their homes, as they could only watch from the windows of their second story homes.”
They learned of families who were separated when the flood hit – the water arriving in a 30-foot wave - and spending what seemed to be an eternity waiting to find them.
Seeing all of the damage that was done, and what the media doesn’t show on TV, “impacted me the most,” Nikky Pederson said.
“I experienced Christ in the people we helped that were affected by Hurricane Sandy,” she said. “They were all so thankful for what they had, and didn’t take anything for granted.”
“It was rewarding, but sad,” Mackley said. The media didn’t tell “how terrible it actually was. It opened our eyes… There was a lot of suffering.”
Collecting all of the pieces of what they once had is only one huge obstacle, Kocka observed. The aftermath that brings depression is yet another huge difficulty many are trying to tackle. Though it was nearly seven months ago, many services dealing with the damage are still being put into place, as well as funds to help the many people impacted by this tragedy, he said.
“What struck our group greatly was the lack of entitlement people felt,” Kocka said. “They were incredibly gracious and in awe of the selflessness they were receiving – especially from teenagers.”
“You just don’t see youth like this anymore,” a gentleman told Kocka.
Another woman said, as tears filled her eyes, “It’s like stepping back 20 years, just seeing kids, strong kids, leaders that want to help. You just don’t see kids that want to help anymore.”
Some of the students quickly adapted to the devastation; for others it took a bit more time,” Kocka observed. “However, with one purpose in hand, we worked through those obstacles and God used those moments to work within us. We had to trust and lean on him with our entire being.
“I think our whole mission team would agree with me when I say the trip was eye opening, jaw dropping, heart-wrenching and spiritually impacting,” he said.
“The youth could share story upon story of the many experiences they encountered in New York,” he said. “The young widowed mother who lost her husband in the hurricane, the very depressed wife and mother who needed to grieve, the old man who greatly appreciated able hands, the drunken man standing outside the super market trying to numb his aching heart…
“The truth is simple,” Kocka said. “We pray that they saw Christ in us, as we met them where they were at. We didn’t bring God to the city. God was, and still is, there. We didn’t focus on what we thought we couldn’t do. Instead we focused on what we could do and when we thought we couldn’t God provided – tenfold.”