Listen to the podcast interview with Rev. Dr. Mark Hannemann here.
What do you say to someone who has lost everything? What do you say to someone who had to run to escape the hellish inferno only to face the reality that they have no place to call home because their home has been reduced to ashes? Welcome to Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, a quaint, historic village on the west coast of Maui. At least that description was fitting up to just a couple weeks ago, but now this village resembles many cities in Europe at the end of WWII.
What do you say? If you are wise, you choose your words very carefully. Maybe you do what Job’s friends did at first. They sat in silence with him for the first seven days after his tremendous losses after tearing their garments and putting dust on their heads. You let the survivors tell their story, if they are up to it. You don’t open your mouth, except maybe to say, “I am so sorry,” or, “I’m here for you right now.” You leave all the pious platitudes and cliches of grief at home. When you do say something, you definitely don’t want to echo Job’s three friends and say something like, “Wow, you must have done something really bad for God to punish you in this way.”
On August 15 I got a call from California/Nevada/Hawaii (CNH) District President Mike Lange asking if I could travel to Maui and be part of a relief team responding to the wildfires on the island. Our home base would be Emmanuel Lutheran Church and School in Kahului. Our team included Rev. Chris Singer and his wife Jeanette, Deaconess Kathy O’Day (Lutheran Church Charities), Rev. Rod Hall (a California pastor/counselor), and Rev. Ralph Schmidt (Orphan Grain Train). Our team assessed human care needs, provided care and support for the staff and members of Emmanuel, provided care and gift cards to survivors, made connections with other ministries and agencies, and developed a plan for ongoing efforts.
We had the joy and privilege of being able to participate in worship services at Emmanuel on August 20. Pastor Singer shared a message of hope based on the Gospel reading. It was the story of Jesus’ gracious provision of healing for the daughter of the Canaanite woman and His commendation of the woman’s faith. The bottom line: Are we going to keep trusting Jesus when we experience loss, pain, suffering, and grief?
Most of my time was spent traveling to Lahaina each day and providing care and counseling to survivors who were housed at area hotels. The hotel where I served had some 578 survivors. I was able to have conversations there with Lahaina residents who lost their homes or have not been able to return to their homes. Their stories were harrowing and heart-breaking. They were grateful to be alive and thankful for the help that was being provided. I heard degrees of frustration with the recovery process, anger borne out of being overwhelmed with the extreme circumstances, and observed decision-making paralysis consistent with early-stage grief.
I spent some time ministering to survivors who I found in the parking lots of the hotels in and around their vehicles and their few remaining earthly possessions. Many/most residents lost their vehicles in the fires. I spoke with a woman who was thankful to have gotten out of harm’s way with her son, her dog, and her 90-year old mother. All that was left of her possessions was a suitcase she managed to grab when they evacuated that was full of travel items she had packed for a trip she and her son were going to take to see family in Japan, a trip they may never be able to take now. Our team was able to distribute gift cards to survivors in the name of Emmanuel, our whole LCMS family, and especially in the name of Jesus, the one who fills us with hope and comfort in the face of suffering.
One more story. I approached a woman who was walking her dog through the hotel. (The no-pet policy had been suspended in this high-end resort facility.) She told me she lost her home and that family members had lost three dogs in the fire. I gave her a gift card and said it was from the church and she said, “Why did God let this happen? Why didn’t God take me? Why would God take everything I have, but leave me here?” I told her I didn’t know why, but suggested maybe a better question is “What”—what, God, do you have in mind for me? What, God, would you have me do now? I told her that that the fire could take away all she had, but that the fire could not take away Jesus or her faith. She paused for a moment and then said, “I guess this is when Jesus is carrying me. You know, Footprints in the Sand.” I said, “I think you’re exactly right. Let Jesus carry you.”
Please pray for all the families that have been impacted by the wildfires on Maui and for all the relief workers who have come from all over the country to help. Several other communities have been affected by the wildfires beyond Lahaina as well. Pray for Emmanual Church and School; for Principal Josh Rempfer and the Emmanuel staff and members as they serve 217 students PS-8 and their families. Pray for Leif Sjostrand, president of the congregation, as he helps lead Emmanuel through these challenging days. Thanks for your prayers!
Donate to Help With Relief Efforts
Orphan Grain Train https://orphangraintrain-bloom.kindful.com
California Nevada Hawaii District Disaster Relief Fund: https://www.cnh-lcms.org/post/pray-for-the-people-of-maui
Emmanuel Lutheran Church of Maui: https://www.elc-maui.org/
LCMS Disaster Response: https://www.lcms.org/givenow/disaster
Group photo courtesy of Rev. Mark Hannemann. Bycicle photo (c) slovegrove/iStock.