Keeping the faith

It was enough to shake anyone’s faith – even the most devoted.

Rev. Dr. P.J. Lawrence said going through a traumatic experience during Hurricane Ivan only to witness the incredible devastation of the tsunami firsthand just a few months later was difficult to cope with, to say the least.

He and he wife Shanthi – who at times were uncertain if they would even live through the storm – travelled home to India for Christmas, the first time in 15 years they’d made the trip. When the tsunami hit, it was overwhelming.

“It simply drained us. The whole devastation was unbelievable.”

Rev. Lawrence, a missionary with the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, said although both tragedies put his faith to the test, ultimately, it has made it stronger. He views Ivan as an opportunity for renewal.

“I believe strongly a new heritage has started with Ivan – the faith heritage.”

It’s translated into an increase in attendance at worship services at the United Church, he said, including new members.

That’s been the case at First Baptist Church as well. And its’ not just the faithful. Pastor Dave Jorge has seen people who haven’t come to church for a very long time – or who have never attended – come through the doors.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase. There were over 750 in our church just recently. I’d say we have about 150 more people than before the storm.”

He said people are soul-searching like never before.

“It’s incredible how many people are searching. Some people are turning to the Lord and are finding answers and some are still depending on themselves.”

While some churches have noted higher attendance post-hurricane, others have witnessed a drop. Jorge said it’s caused some people to question – or lose – their faith.

“A lot of people haven’t come back. It has shaken their faith. This has rocked them dramatically and a lot of people are struggling. They’re asking, `where is God in all of this? Why did He allow this to happen?

“What I say to people is: why don’t you ask God? Spend some time in prayer and He will tell you.”

Jorge said the hurricane has not only prompted people to re-examine their spiritual beliefs but their personal relationships as well.

“I’m dealing with more people than ever who are having tremendous trouble with their marriages. This has been a traumatic incident in their lives and they’re using it as a launching pad to make snap decisions. It really is affecting people.

“Depression is widespread. Everything is going at a slow pace and it’s going to be at least two years before things get back to anywhere near normal.”

Pastor Alson Ebanks of the Church of God in George Town said while he hasn’t seen any significant growth in attendance – the numbers at his church are nearly the same pre and post-Ivan -the hurricane has made people more spiritually aware.

“Even those who were not spiritually conscious before were affected. With the small number of people who were injured and killed, there’s some sensitivity to the reality that God was at work. I’ve heard that many, many times.”

He said attendance dropped significantly immediately after the storm as people contended with practical issues of their lives.

“There wasn’t the flood of people we expected to see right after. But they are coming back.”

The experience was similar at Agape Family Worship Centre.

“There was a period of time when we had about half of the people who normally attended,” said Mr. Ebanks. “We’re basically nearly back to normal now and we are seeing new people, although I can’t say that’s directly due to the storm.

“But a lot of people have stopped and thought about their faith – before and after the storm. It was a significantly impacting and testing event for everybody who went through it.

Pastor Ebanks said his faith was key during his own frightening experience sheltering from Ivan. At the height of the storm, the winds blew in the front doors of his home in Snug Harbour. Water rushed in, rising more than four feet.

“We didn’t know when or if the water would stop. There’s no question my faith helped me through it. It became a very important part of those anxious moments.”

It also played a significant role in the healing process as his church reached out to assist others in the community.

“What motivated that desire was our faith. It has also shaped my thoughts and feelings where recovery is concerned. I have a lot of hope that we can rebuild again and hope we do so with great humility. In spite of our tragedy, we’ve been substantially blessed with no significant loss of life.

“I’m hopeful the community will take the experience and make something positive out of it.”

Pastor Ebanks noted that it’s common for people to turn to religion in a crisis but that spiritual awakening is usually short-lived.

“Even people who have never considered faith oftentimes cry out and look to God for help. But within a few weeks or a month, people go right back to their old ways and forget, until another crisis comes along, what helped them through in the first place.”

Rev. Y1. Lawrence noted that was the experience during the aftermath of the .tragic events of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US. People flooded to the church in search of answers and consolation. But just weeks later, church attendance returned to pre-9111 levels.

“Ivan gave us an unprecedented experience -it helped us reflect on faith,” said Rev. Lawrence. “The question is, how long will that be sustained?

“If it goes back to business as usual, we’ve lost an opportunity. Cayman has a great message to give to the world. It’s not just money and business we can offer. We can offer a great spiritual resource after Ivan.”

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