It’s surprisingly hard to write about my work here in St Thomas. Quite simply, in a two week span last September, the world ended in St Thomas. The above two pictures really don’t begin to capture the devastation though they give a small sense. All that blue in the bottom picture is what we learned to call FEMA blue in Fort Lauderdale–the blue of tarps FEMA hands out to people whose roofs have been very seriously damaged. This is 5 months later and the tarps are still there and will be for months to come. Not everyone has power yet. There is no ‘landline’ phone service. All the drinking water comes in plastic bottles. There are two enormous mountains of debris laced with all kinds of toxic materials that sit on either side of Charlotte Amelie, and no one knows what to do with them.
You can see all that but it’s the toll on people’s souls. I only get tiny glimpses of the anguish and devastation this really left behind when I listen to the individual stories that are excruciatingly personal and desolating, and not mine to tell but which are part of the gift I have been given by this generous community.
Since the end of September of last year, bits and pieces have come back together and a new world emerges. Cruise ships were back within weeks of the hurricanes–not even 2 massive hurricanes could begin to erase the beauty of this island nor keep the luxury jewelry stores shut down. I watch thousands of people debark from 3-7 ships a day, come scurrying into town to make their purchases and then leave again, and I wonder if they have any notion at all of the hardship all around them while they are here.
People are making sad peace with the fact that many of their own no longer have a way to survive on this island. They are rebuilding. A member of the vestry at All Saints Cathedral Church is helping to rebuild the sewage system that was basically decimated. A lot of the every day work of living carries on. And always, all around me, laughter.
There are two other women from Alabama sharing the diocesan visitor quarters with me while they work with the Cathedral School this week. At lunch we walk from the cathedral campus down to an area where we can pick up a bite to eat before getting back to work. We walk past a corner shop where there is usually a group of guys hanging out, friendly, more than a little high on pot, with astoundingly long dreadlocks. They’ve taken to greeting us like this: “Good day, Charlie’s Angels.” Since the three of us are in our middle years, we delight in our moniker and wish we could whoosh back our hair a la Farah Fawcett.
Each night, we are invited out by parishioners, vestry members or members of All Saints Cathedral School board. We are entertained lavishly and graciously and there has not been a single night where at some point we haven’t found ourselves laughing so hard the tears were streaming down our faces and our bellies were aching. That hospitality, that laughter, that willingness to allow three people to parachute in from a very distant world, with good intentions and no real knowledge of this beautiful place, is at the heart of the courage of a community that would have every right to husband every last one of their resources for the work of rebuilding. Would perhaps be wiser asking us to stay home.
I hope the retreat I will lead starting tonight, the preaching I’ve done, the services I’ve led will make some tiny kind of difference. Yesterday morning, I did the blessing of a civil marriage for two folks from New York who got married on the beach by a justice of the peace on Wednesday evening. They were kind and generous and I wonder if their monetary gift and the monetary gift I will be able to give the Cathedral’s senior warden on Sunday morning, thanks to the generosity of my church back home and several other friends who invested in this trip, will be the real difference I can make. I know this for sure: it is the new friendships and the time of companionship with brothers and sisters I didn’t even know I had, that seem to me to be where the real holiness resides, where the Spirit has been at work on all of us.