From Sr. Margaret's pen:
· David, who went to Confession and Mass for the first time in 40 years.
Ten thousand people temporarily relocated to San Antonio because of Ike. Everyone on staff acknowledged how well organized FEMA and other services were this time around and how much more calm people were on the whole. The archdiocese of Galveston-Houston reported that although half of its 160 parish facilities sustained some damage, it was manageable.
When we realized on Sunday, Sept. 14, that thousands from the Texas Coast were pouring into San Antonio following the devastation from Hurricane Ike, we knew they would have not only material and physical needs, but spiritual and emotional ones as well. Inspired by the FSPs who had ministered to those who had fled Katrina and Rita three years ago, we decided to follow suit. I signed up with the volunteer corps first, since Sr. Kathleen had an exhibit the next weekend to prepare for.
Monday, after several phone calls to various offices of the APC, I learned that no archdiocesan plan was afoot, and that was “getting mixed signals” from Church leadership about committing its resources for the evacuees’ spiritual care.
I asked for a Wednesday meeting with Steve Saldaño, president of Catholic Charities, and the archdiocesan director of evangelization to discuss what we hoped to accomplish and I offered to go to Kelly AFB to get the lay of the land in preparation for that meeting. Protestant chaplains had repeatedly begged me to ask for a priest to “provide sacramental care,” so this became a priority and a key to the chaplains’ collaboration with us. At the meeting we compared notes and with the directors of formation, evangelization, and social concerns, we formulated a simple action plan.
The shelter was a massive warehouse, about 300 yards long, and was divided into four sections. “A” consisted of a processing station, dining area, Red Cross office, drug dispensary, prayer room, and communications center where people could call anywhere in the world for free; “B” and “C” were filled with FEMA cots, where as many as 5,000 evacuees bunked; in “D” the city’s VA set up a makeshift hospital and treated 190 acute and non-acute patients at its peak. A retired priest came each Sunday to celebrate Mass first at the hospital, then in the prayer room.
It was soon clear that most of the people were poor, marginally educated, and in many cases, tough. Most were not Catholic, but were open to our presence and our willingness to serve them. Countless people wanted to tell their stories, confide their worries and anxieties, and be hugged or prayed with. We moved about freely among them, talking with them and letting them pick out something to read.
Since our Pauline Book Center is still closed and we had very few titles we could use for this purpose, we needed sources for materials. We began by raiding our own community library for easy-to-read spirituality books, biographies and novels. People couldn’t get enough. Not only did they accept what we had, but as the days passed, they began to search us out. Thanks to PBM’s order fulfillment department (thank you, Sr. Patricia!) and the few remaining dollars in the Books of Comfort Fund, we were able to give out several copies of Prayers for Surviving Depression, Tender Mercies, Letters of St. Paul, his novena, some Spanish titles (we actually had more than we needed) and coloring books…with crayons, too.
The greatest demand was for Bibles and rosaries. Yes, rosaries. Sure, many wanted to just wear one. But we did what we could to lead them beyond that. We distributed at least 125 sets that included a plastic rosary, PBM’s How To Pray the Rosary and, in many cases, Basic Prayers. Cash donations to cover all this are trickling in. In addition, Catholic Book Publishing donated 40 medium Bibles, and OSV sent hundreds of prayer books for adults and children. People were no more put off by the word “Catholic” on the covers than they were by us. In our hands even the city paper looked Catholic!
The “Chaplain’s Table” in Section A, as well as the one in the hospital, stocked whatever we wanted to leave there: back issues of Time magazine, copies of the archdiocesan newspaper, “tracts” from OSV donated by the archdiocese, and the bulletin from the nearest parish, with a note we attached to each with the pastor’s approval, inviting people to join the Sunday celebration. Some did go, also to get canned goods and gas money when it was available.
The challenge was occupying the children. Our connections with the Salesian Sisters and volunteers of the Missionary Catechists of Divine Providence provided the kids with evenings of soccer, relay races, games, coloring, and songs—some with a religious twist. Prizes came compliments of Pauline Books. Not only the parents, but the police and fire fighters too, couldn’t have been more collaborative and grateful.
The final week, it was only Galveston residents who were left—about 400 or 500 people. The evening before their departure by bus, we held a send-off prayer for anyone who wanted to attend, centered around the Rosary, “the Gospel prayer.” Originally intended as a simple presentation two days later, we quickly had to re-bill it when we heard that Kelly would be emptied out in the morning. Eight adults and four teens came for the 20-minute reflection and group sharing, then stayed to learn how to pray the first Joyful Mystery.
Only one participant was Catholic: Nancy, an ex-con, who had done time in federal prison for drug-dealing. With the help of Sr. Maureen, a former police officer, she had enrolled in a re-entry program and worked to get her own apartment, where she lived for three days before Ike struck. Despondently she told our little gathering, that she “lost everything.” An older woman in the group was firm: “But you still have your ambitions, and that’s what’ll carry you through. God will see to that. Look at Job—lost everything. But God gave him more than he ever had.” Nancy replied, “See, I needed to hear someone tell me that. I have my faith, I know God is with me, but I need people too. I’ll hang onto that.”
Oct. 1, the first Wednesday of the month, they left. Our own evening prayer consisted of entrusting to St. Joseph all the people we could remember by name or story, as well as all those who would continue to be touched by what they received through us. We introduce some of them to you:
· Lita and Randy, who don’t want to live together anymore, but have two pre-school daughters to care for;
· Rita, who instructed me to “sit there and don’t say anything” while she prayed for my ministry among the evacuees;
· Mary, already severely traumatized by early abuse and disoriented because of the evacuation, but comforted by the hospital staff and our visit; she recognized us on our next visit and reached out to give us another smile and hug, assuring us that she was reading the pamphlet we left her;
· Marie and William, married 25 years and members of the Holiness of God Church in Galveston, who were eager to learn the Rosary and have us pray a decade with them;
· Orlando, Starr, and Sienna, their baby brother and two supportive parents, who attended every play session we held;
· Kenneth, surprised by God’s care for him: we offered him a book on dealing with difficult people just after his altercation with another evacuee;
· Jeff, a former Air Force pilot, who was amazed and amused that he was back at the base from which he had been deployed to Viet Nam 35 years ago;
· Agnes, a volunteer nurse from India (now living in Naperville, IL), who used to frequent our center in Mumbai close to her home and who knows several Indian Paulines by name;
· Those who committed either capital or petty crimes or who suffered because of them, including a man who lost his life there at Kelly;
· The literally hundreds of military, medical and Red Cross personnel, police officers, and fire fighters, who came from San Antonio and from all over the country— North Carolina, Michigan, California, Alabama, Alaska, and Illinois, for starters—to assist evacuees with compassion, humor, respect, and persevering dedication. They earned the respect and thanks of everyone there.