Rockaway Residents Undergoing Faith-Testing Times

Congress passed an emergency aid package for Superstorm Sandy victims earlier this week. But three months after the storm, many hard-hit neighborhoods are still suffering. Host Michel Martin checks back with Monsignor John Brown of St. Francis de Sales in Rockaway, Queens, to discuss how the community is recovering.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we speak about matters of faith and spirituality. And today, we are going to check back in with a faith leader who made a big impression on us, among other people, at the height of the recovery efforts after Sandy. That's the storm that tore through the Northeast about three months ago.

Congress just passed an emergency aid package for victims after an appeal from area lawmakers who stressed that many people are still struggling. Now, back in November, you might remember that we spoke with Monsignor John Brown of St. Francis de Sales. That's in Rockaway, Queens. It was one of the hardest hit areas. The church and the school were serving as, kind of, a center for storm relief. Let's listen.

JOHN BROWN: At the present time, we're serving between four and 10 thousand people a day.

MARTIN: What? Four and 10 thousand people? Like, food and clothes, everything?

BROWN: Yeah. That's food, that's clothing, that's toiletries, that's cleaning stuff, everything somebody would need to try to survive day-by-day. We've served over 50,000.

MARTIN: Now, we told Monsignor Brown that we were going to check back in with him to find out how things are going. So we have now done so and he is with us now. Monsignor, thank you so much for joining us once again.

BROWN: Thank you for calling back. You kept your word.

MARTIN: Yes, we sure did. Well, how are you?

BROWN: I'm doing OK. The neighborhood's coming together, little by little. It's much quieter now. The disaster relief center is closed. All our tents are closed. Right now, we're in the process of trying to fix our church buildings that served the community so well during the storm and the recovery. Now, it's our turn to try to put everything back together.

MARTIN: Well, that was one of the things that we talked about - is that space in the church was taken up with distributing things and just dealing with people's immediate needs. You were still trying to figure out how to do the church's, you know, actual mission. Are you now able to hold services in church? Are you able to do all the kinds of things that you were doing before, the kinds of meetings that people often have in church?

BROWN: Some of it. Not all of it. We tried to keep mass going throughout the storm recovery. We had one mass a day. We still do. And, on weekends, we have three masses. The church - we have our lights. We have our heat back. It's not perfect, but it's coming along. We were very lucky, because what happened was, our infrastructure was totally destroyed. But we were able to work on it while we had the disaster relief center, so we just reopened our school and I just moved back into my rectory. It's coming together, slowly, but surely.

MARTIN: And what's it like being back in your own bed?

BROWN: It's very nice to be back, to sleep in your own bed. It's been - I was staying at a friend's house for the last three months or so and - another rectory - and it was a little rough. You know, it's never your own home and it's never your own bed, but this is nice just to be back.

MARTIN: We've been talking a lot about the church and the school itself, but what about the neighborhood?

BROWN: The neighborhood is coming back slowly. Most people are beginning to come back now. I would say about, probably around 80 percent of the people are back, but not everybody is living here full time because some of the people still have problems with electricity and heating and etc. So it's not all that comfortable for everybody yet, so there's still people living outside the Rockaways.

But, you know, little by little, and slowly but surely, people are kind of making their way back. You can see more life in the neighborhood.

MARTIN: When we talked the last time, I mean, there were two things. I mean, first, there were the physical needs that people have, but then there are the spiritual, emotional and psychological needs that you...

BROWN: Right.

MARTIN: ...that you take care of, you know, all the time, anyway. And when we last talked...

BROWN: Right.

MARTIN: ...a lot of the people, you were telling us, were in shock. You know, how are people doing?

BROWN: Yeah. I still think there's a matter of shock, that people are trying to recover, realizing, as I always say now, it's a new normal. It's never going to be what it was. A lot of our memories are gone, but they're memories, and now we have to create a new normal. So it's going to be some difficult times. It's not -certainly not over. It's not just a matter of, you know, fixing a basement, then you're done. It's going to take time to get everybody back together.

MARTIN: What is it that you think most people need at this point?

BROWN: I think, for most people, they need a little rest. They need a little time away from the whole difficulty of dealing with the storm and dealing with what's facing them. People need a break, basically.

MARTIN: Forgive me for asking, but I find myself wondering: Has this been a faith-testing experience?

BROWN: I think for many people, it probably has. I think it opened up many people's eyes to the reality of life and not being in total control of everything, every day. You know, there's always a feeling that they were in control of their destiny, and they had things in the right place. And now, all of a sudden, their foundations have been shaken.

What I'm very proud of with the parish is that, on Sundays, the mass is becoming more and more crowded. As they come back, they come back to church. They never let go of their relationship with Christ and their church.

MARTIN: How do you minister to them at a time like this? I mean, what do you say?

BROWN: Yeah. I think what you do is you just make it as positive as possible. I would say my big theme is nothing is impossible with God. We point out the growth experiences, like having their children back, having houses repaired, more people moving back. Try to just remind each other, stay calm, help each other through the worst moments, and God will be here with us always. And it will continue, because God is with us.

MARTIN: And, you know, I've got to ask, even though you may think this is a completely ridiculous question: What's keeping you going?

BROWN: Yeah. Hope in the future really keeps me moving, and my relationship with Christ just keeps me alive and thinking to myself and, you know, reminding myself: Everything is possible with God.

MARTIN: A nice bottle of wine wouldn't hurt, either, would it?

BROWN: And a bottle of wine and a vacation.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: To where? Someplace with no water?

BROWN: Oh, I am leaving for the Caribbean tomorrow, and I'm going to stay on top of the water.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. All right. Well, that's a good thing.

BROWN: I'm going away for a few days with some friends of mine just to kind of re-amp my own batteries.

MARTIN: Well, you know what? They say you cannot pour from an empty vessel.

BROWN: You've got it.

MARTIN: So congratulations on that. Thank you so much for talking with us again.

BROWN: Thank you for having us, and thank you for keeping up with us. I really appreciate it.

MARTIN: Monsignor John Brown is the senior pastor at St. Francis de Sales. That's in Rockaway, Queens, and he joined us from St. Francis by phone before he gets on a plane and goes someplace with more water. Go figure.

BROWN: Amen.

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