DIVINITY Online Edition

From the Eye of the Storm

By Reed Criswell

On Saturday night, Aug. 27, Rachel Benefield-Pfaff put the finishing touches on her sermon. Hurricane Katrina was spinning closer in the Gulf of Mexico and some churches had cancelled services, but Rachel planned to preach as usual at Handsboro United Methodist Church.

The storm, she thought, would hold off until afternoon. But by early Sunday morning, the winds and rains were severe enough for Rachel to cancel services. As a precaution she and her husband, Scott, began moving valuables from the ground floor. When Rachel took a break to shower, she noticed that water was coming through the shower walls and through her parquet floors.

“At that point,” she says, “I realized we were in real trouble.”

With Thomas, 6, and Ellie, 3, in their swimsuits on the dining room table and the dog on top of the recliner, Rachel and Scott quickened the pace of moving valuables. But the water rose quickly.

Rachel and her mother took the children, then the dog, into the attic. At 6’2”, Scott, a high school physics teacher, was the last to concede to the flood.

Rachel hadn’t panicked up to that point—there were too many things to do. But in the attic, with the wind blowing hard and gusting harder, they heard what sounded like a tornado spin across their front yard. She had a vision of a tree falling through the roof just inches from her childrens’ heads. She closed her eyes, said a silent prayer, and felt at peace.

Before the storm, Rachel had prepared a funeral sermon for a much-loved parishioner. Her favorite Bible verse was Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” In the days and weeks after Katrina, Rachel often reminded herself and her congregation of that kind of faith.

For five more hours Katrina blew hard. When the wind and rain died down enough for Scott and Rachel to climb out of the attic, they may as well have stepped out of a rocket ship onto another planet.

Brackish water from the nearby bayou covered the lower floor of the house. In the carport, their cars (including a new Tahoe) were waterlogged. A neighbor passed by on a boat. Rachel and Scott loaded their family and what possessions they could fit into their small boat, and motored across what had been the street to her mother’s house. Though it was closer to the bayou, the house was raised on stilts and the top floor was dry.

The day after the storm, cell phone service was back and Rachel was on the phone, checking on her parishioners. Miraculously, no one in the immediate membership of the congregation was seriously hurt.

The threat of looting hung over everything. “It was pitch black outside,” remembers Rachel. “We didn’t have any personal experience with robberies, but the looting wasn’t far away.”

The church building itself did not fare so well. The education building has no roof. The steeple knocked a hole in the roof of the main building, though the sanctuary is still usable.

Rachel continues to preach. The study, preparation and delivery of sermons has helped sustain her. The rhythms of worship established before the storm have provided a semblance of normality in the midst of the devastation.

 This photograph on 1st Street in Gulfport, Miss., was taken by members of the Katrina Relief Team from First United Methodist Church of Orlando, Fla.

One of Rachel’s insights was the difference between possessions with no intrinsic worth and artifacts whose history helps define who we are.

She learned this lesson a hard way. In the first few days after the storm, she was elated to find a number of her books safe and dry. She intended to bring them inside, somewhere safe. Four days later she found them outside, forgotten in the confusion of clean-up. They were sitting ruined, in rain-filled containers.

It was the first time she let herself cry. With notes scribbled in margins and highlighted passages, the books by and about her patron theologian, Henri Nouwen, and those on Celtic spirituality and lives of the saints collected during her divinity days and the time she spent at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland had helped create her. Now she could only regret their destruction.

Rachel has guided many of the work groups that poured into the area to help. She has been overwhelmed with both the generosity of total strangers, and the enormity of the recovery.

She has preached from 1 Thessalonians 5: “While the people are saying 'Peace and safety,' destruction will come on them suddenly.But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.”

As 2005 rolled into 2006, Rachel and her family were still “evacuees.” They were still at her mother's home, sleeping on the floor in one room of the house on stilts. Their home across the street, scheduled for rebuilding, is behind schedule.

Piles of detritus still pock the landscape. She wants to tuck her kids to bed in their own rooms, put the dog out, and enjoy a few minutes of study all by herself. She is tired.

The habits of hope and faith established before the storm abide, she tells her congregation. The discipline of joining together in worship for all the years before Katrina form the memory of what they may expect after the debris is gone and the houses are rebuilt. Rachel knows her children will judge all other storms they endure on the Gulf Coast by Katrina, remembering to put on the armor of God for the next time.

Copyright © 2006 Duke Divinity School. All Rights Reserved
divmag@duke.edu :: (919) 660-3552