November 21st, 2012
05:00 AM ET

Weeks after Sandy, churches continue to help lead relief effort

By Sarah Hoye, CNN
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Coney Island, New York (CNN) - Pastor Connie Hulla heads down the street toward the setting sun, her cowboy boots clicking against the sidewalk.

“Don’t worry, we have plenty of food inside,” she calls out over the rumble of a commercial generator to a line of residents snaking around her Coney Island Gospel Assembly church. “Sorry for the wait. We had to restock.”

It’s been three weeks since Superstorm Sandy ravaged the Northeast, killing more that 100 people and causing an estimated $50 billion in damage.

Despite power being restored in most areas, schools reopening and life beginning to go on as usual, there are many homes in need of repair from flood damage – and entire blocks reduced to rubble - leaving a strong demand for the good will of others.

On the front lines of the relief efforts have been churches that are providing aid to storm victims, meeting needs very early on.

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Truckloads of donations from across the country, carrying everything from bottled water to diapers, are arriving at places of worship like Hulla’s Coney Island church. Residents living in areas hit hard by Sandy are flocking to get their hands on much-needed supplies.

In Coney Island, several neighborhood stores are still closed. Hand and foot warmers, flashlights and batteries are going fast. Toilet paper is a coveted luxury item.

In New York and New Jersey, 1,137 customers remained without power on Monday morning.

In line for aid at Coney Island Gospel Assembly, residents swap storm stories, telling of sewage in their kitchen sinks, cars swept away by water and homes without heat.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

The storm smashed cars against neighborhood buildings, Hulla said, and thrashed a semi in the church parking lot amid the rising water. “The scary thing,” she said, “was we didn’t know if it was going to stop.”

Donations arrive at her church from as close as Brooklyn and far away as North Carolina, with controversial radio host Glenn Beck among those cutting checks. AmeriCorps volunteers even arrived from California.

But for Hulla, the constant flow of people waiting for supplies can be overwhelming.

"It's hard to see the people suffer,” she said. “It's hard to see the children cold. It's hard to see people who had what they needed to have to stand on a line.

“We try to do everything with dignity, because that could have been me," she continued, fighting back tears. “It’s very humbling.”

In the days after Sandy slammed New York, two pastors serving Manhattan’s Lower East Side - near where a transformer exploded at a ConEd plant, turning the area dark for days - sprung into action.

They used social media and created a blog called Grace in the Storm to help with the relief.

“There’s a network in this city that is very viable, and it’s called the church,” said one of those pastors, the Harley Davidson-riding Rick Del Rio of Abounding Grace Ministries. "It was one of those times like after 9/11 where everybody came together to help one another.”

Matt Stevens of Somebody Cares Baltimore, a nonprofit group that helps connect faith-based organizations, arranged for the first shipment of relief supplies into the area, which arrived the day after the storm hit. Stevens saw the pastors’ call for help online and offered up supplies no longer needed in another state.

As word spread, more donations arrived at the relief site from faith-based nonprofits like Operation Blessing and Mercy Chefs.

The pastors estimate that they were able to serve 20,000 families from the community, including hundreds living in a nearby high-rise housing development that lost power for four days.

Del Rio said it was days before his team saw anyone from the mayor’s office or from New York’s housing authority.

“We are the church that deals with the community, and our ears are to the ground, and we know the people,” he said. “This is gonna happen again. The infrastructure has started to build from the ground up. Moving forward, there needs to be something more strategic.”

With their neighborhood back on its feet, Del Rio and Pastor Guy Wasko from the East Village’s Trinity Grace Church continue to mobilize volunteers and donations, with an eye toward the city's hardest-hit areas.

“You see in disasters like this where the church really shines,” Wasko said. “There's still people stuck on the 23rd floor of high-rise buildings, and nobody's coming to them.”

Linking arms with the faith-based effort has been Occupy Sandy, an effort that grew out of last year’s Occupy Wall Street protests.

Marilyn Andersen recently went to Occupy Sandy’s main distribution center inside the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in her native Brooklyn.

"You know, you really have to put yourself out there and figure that if you were in that position, you'd want people to come and help you as well,” Andersen said. “I brought my daughters with me, and we're here to help as much as we can."

After the storm, Toni Jones James was without power, heat or hot water for more than a week. She lives on the 12th floor of the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn.

It’s the largest housing development in Brooklyn, with more than 6,100 people.

James says she doesn’t know what she would have done without the hot meals and blankets provided inside the nearby Visitation Church and Red Hook Initiative community center, she said.

“I would not have been able to survive without the help,” she said, adding that her power was restored Friday, two days before her birthday.

As of Sunday, the New York City Housing Authority reported that it had restored power, heat and water to the nearly 800 city buildings that had been affected by Sandy.

The authority installed more than 100 generators and 24 temporary boilers brought in from across the country to provide essential services to public housing residents.

But many are still struggling to get their lives back to normal.

In South Ozone Park, Queens, Pastor Sharon "Sharo" Ramkhelawan at HopeNYC Church is busy overseeing the church’s warehouse. It is brimming with donations, some sent by Del Rio and Wasko and other items stocked by the generosity of hundreds of churches, other groups and individuals.

Ramkhelawan, whose Long Island home was flooded during the storm, has been living in the church with her family for the past few weeks.

The faith community's response to Sandy is playing a major role helping residents pick up the pieces, she said.

"They're not just there for today or two weeks. They have been there for years,” she says of New York’s churches. “They will be there for years, even after everybody else. When the government has pulled out, the church will still be there."

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Church • New York

soundoff (118 Responses)
  1. syplementy

    Wonderful points altogether, you simply received a new reader. What might you recommend about your post that you simply made some days ago? Any positive?

    December 7, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  2. Hear The Truth


    November 24, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  3. Hear The Truth
    November 24, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  4. Hear The Truth


    November 24, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  5. VRage13

    I thought King B Hussein and FEMA were going to take care of all this. I thought America and Americans HATE religion and religous organizations. I thought I read about a separation of church and state that including removing GOD from schools, the 10 Commandments courts and the Golden Rule public places. Why are the same people who push or practice these things now lined up at churches? Why aren't they waiting on thier all-mighty savior KingB Hussein to rescue them? I'm confused.

    November 22, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • midwest rail

      As soon as you typed the first two words, you were wrong.

      November 24, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  6. sheetiron

    Well, the churches have always led the way in everything. Music, art, poetry, literature, science, education, etc. Historically the church has always led the initial push behind every major advancement in civilization. Except for social media, and social networking. That confuses me.

    November 22, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  7. neal

    How would you feel if you got caught in a super storm like Sandy without knowing where your next hot meal will be or where can you get the blankets that your children need to keep warm? I know that would be grateful for all of the help that I could get.I know that there are a few pastors that molested children in the past, but does that mean that you have to slam all churches that are trying to help those in need? I was homeless and i knew of a shelter that accepted the help of several churches in their kitchens and, those churches also brought hot meals to serve those in the community that are in need of those services. So DON'T GO SLAMMING DOWN THOSE CHURCHES THAT ARE ON THE FRONT LINES EVERY DAY MAKING SURE THAT THEY ARE HELPING THEIR COMMUNITY. YOU NEVER KNOW WHEN YOU MIGHT NEED THEIR SERVICES. I feel really bad in not being able to help in the relief efforts there on the East coast but please know that you are in my prayers every night and day.

    November 21, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • End Religion

      neal, have the people of your community go buy the property next door to the church. Call it Neal's Community Center. Transfer all the events and people that don't involve worship over to the community center. Have people of the community contribute time and money to the community center at the same rate they contributed to the church. Shut down the church. What have you lost? Nothing but religion. You do not need religion to be a nice guy and do nice things.

      November 21, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      It's interesting that when a Christian or any other person of Faith does something good and positive then some Atheist declare that you can do all of the same things not in the name of Faith and Religions. I agree, but then many Atheist state that all the evils of the world were done in the name of Faith and Religion and with out the same, then the world would be a better place.

      Which is it. If you can do good without Faith and Religion then folks can do bad without Faith and Religion. If the churches or the mosques or some Atheist group wants to help then why can folks just let them be and let them help.

      November 23, 2012 at 2:43 am |
  8. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    November 21, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • Leif

      Yet another meaningless post of a meaningless statement.

      November 22, 2012 at 5:18 am |
    • TrollAlert

      "Ronald Regonzo" who degenerates to:
      "Salvatore" degenerates to:
      "Douglas" degenerates to:
      "truth be told" degenerates to:
      "Thinker23" degenerates to:
      "Atheism is not healthy ..." degenerates to:
      "another repentant sinner" degenerates to:
      "Dodney Rangerfield" degenerates to:
      "tina" degenerates to:
      "captain america" degenerates to:
      "Atheist Hunter" degenerates to:
      "Anybody know how to read? " degenerates to:
      "just sayin" degenerates to:
      "ImLook'nUp" degenerates to:
      "Kindness" degenerates to:
      "Chad" degenerates to
      "Bob" degenerates to
      "nope" degenerates to:
      "2357" degenerates to:
      "WOW" degenerates to:
      "fred" degenerates to:
      "!" degenerates to:
      "John 3:16" degenerates to:
      "pervert alert" is the degenerate.

      This troll is not a christian

      November 26, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.

      November 26, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  9. dizzylucy

    I'm in an affected area (thankfully didn't personally have damage) but I have seen an outpouring of generosity, kindness, and community strength from so many people and groups, religious and non-religious alike. ALL help is appreciated, and times like this bring everyone together.

    November 21, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  10. Sasquatch

    Where are all the atheists?

    November 21, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Akira

      Out there helping, too, why?

      November 21, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • Leif

      The atheists paid attention to the warnings that came from all those pesky scientists. They evacuated.

      November 22, 2012 at 5:19 am |
  11. gg

    Gee....Is Julia now going to have to go to church?

    November 21, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  12. GodLovesAtheistsToo

    There are lots and lots of churches helping out. I know by brother in law and his family have been spending 3 evenings a week and all day Saturdays helping with clean up in New York with their church group.

    I also know that the Mormons have been helping out tremendously with their vast network of humanitarian aid.




    November 21, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  13. chizzlinsam

    start TAXING churches!!!

    November 21, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Buddha2112

      It is time...TAX ALL RELIGIONS and Churches!

      November 21, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • gg


      November 21, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Priest


      November 21, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.