NEW YORK Hurricane Sandy was a tragedy in the Northeast, but God used the life-altering superstorm to change the hearts of people in Rockaway Beach, a neighborhood in Queens, New York, from totally disinterested in the Gospel to yearning for spiritual guidance.
A couple of years ago, Larry Holcomb, director of Urban Impact, a missions organization in New York, arranged for the purchase of a large old house in a rough part of Rockaway Beach, not fathoming what God would do next.
After renovating the beach house, Holcomb moved in bunk beds to house short-term mission teams coming to New York to help Urban Impact reach immigrants in the city through language and job training classes.
With a goal of launching Beach Church in the summer of 2013, Holcomb and others this past summer handed out about 5,000 invitations to Bible studies in Rockaway Beach.
"We went door-to-door, handing them out to people," said Holcomb. "We got less than a dozen responses. Through that, from the surrounding community, maybe five people had come to Bible study. So that was a ratio of 5 to 5,000. We knew it was a hard neighborhood. People don't have the time or the interest in spiritual things.
"But after the tragedy, we've handed out thousands of tracts and Bibles, and people eagerly say, 'Can I have this?' 'Can you please give me this? I need this guidance.' They're asking us for prayer and saying, 'Can you please come to my house?'
"It has really turned around the spiritual openness of the neighborhood, and where before we were slaving away to find someone who had any interest, now the problem is, How can we possibly have time to address these hundreds and hundreds who are asking us to help them understand the Bible and get closer to God?" Holcomb said.
Hot meals and supplies
When Sandy hit, the beach house lost power along with most others on Rockaway Beach. It also sustained some water damage. Holcomb realized in the immediate aftermath of the storm that "there was no Red Cross, no FEMA, no church here." So he called his staff at Urban Impact and said, "You won't see me for at least a few weeks," as he aimed to repair the beach house and help as many other people as he could.
Rockaway Beach is home to about 40,000 people, and there are two Catholic churches and one church "that's not evangelical or biblical by any means," Holcomb said. "That's it. That's all we have."
Two days after the storm upended Rockaway Beach, Holcomb and "a hodge-podge of totally unrelated people" began giving hot meals and basic supplies to hurting people in the unchurched community. After repairing the centrally-located beach house, it became a makeshift relief center.
Before the storm, Holcomb had approached the landlord of a nearby warehouse about the possibility of renting the space as a location for future worship services. The landlord was not necessarily warm to the idea.
After the storm, the landlord's property had sustained some damage, and Holcomb led a team of volunteers to pump out the whole building, saving him thousands of dollars.
"He called us back and said, 'Hey, you know, about renting, I'll be glad to do that. I'm going to see if I can cut you a deal.' That's locked in, and now we've got a space just a few blocks from the beach house that's a warehouse," said Tom Richter, pastor of New Hope Christian Churchn Flushing, N.Y. Holcomb planted New Hope, and he and Richter minister together in the area.
"The landlord, I don't even think he's a believer, but he's been so moved by all this," Richter said.
Holcomb and the others moved their relief supplies, ranging from diapers to dog food to canned goods, from the beach house to the warehouse, and the ministry to the community has flourished.
"It's going to be a church, but right now it's a relief center for Hurricane Sandy in a much larger space," Richter said. "We're able to focus on doing good in the community beyond the hurricane. Now people know us. They know that there are Christians down there that care and they'll be able to get help long-term.
"In the midst of all of this, we've been meeting families and connecting. Some folks come for some diapers and some canned goods and you hook them up and that's it. Other folks say, 'I could use some help cleaning out my basement,'" Richter said.
Church on the horizon
As relationships developed, Holcomb invited about 50 people to a Thanksgiving dinner in the warehouse and was able to connect with them on a more personal level.
"We hope many of them will form the core group of this new church," Richter said.
"I get pretty excited thinking about in the midst of this disaster God all along is being glorified. In this case a church had been on our hearts, but now it's going to happen sooner."
Holcomb spoke of a middle-aged man named Bobby who lives a few doors down from the beach house. Bobby's house was totally washed out by the storm. Though the walls were still standing, nothing of value was left inside. Holcomb began ministering to him right away.
"He was unemployed at the time, so he started volunteering with us every day," Holcomb said of Bobby. "He asked a lot of questions about why we do things and commented on how great it is that people care and really help. We found out that he was a Muslim man -- American, but Muslim. He had some experience with the church as a kid. He grew up in America. His parents are American. But he turned away.
"He hasn't converted, but every day he comes to visit and to volunteer for at least two hours to help other people," Holcomb said. "He has said, 'As soon as you start your Bible study and prayer meetings, I will be there every time.' That's the kind of progress we've made with many people in the neighborhood."
The opportunities to change lives like Bobby's abound in Rockaway Beach, Holcomb said. Holcomb and his fellow volunteers, made up largely of people from other states who have traveled to the region for disaster relief, have struggled to keep up with the physical needs of people there, and next they hope to enlist New York-area volunteers and focus on meeting spiritual needs.
The Northeast, Holcomb said, is not like the South where after a hurricane churches are there to address long-term spiritual needs.
"The thing that people don't realize is in an area like we are, there are no evangelical churches," he said.
"Something like this gives us that opportunity where people are open and eager to have a church," Holcomb said. "This gives us the opportunity not just to hand out some food, not just to help people with their houses, but an eternal destiny. We can now establish something through this tragedy that will be in the community for a long time but better than that will see people saved and discipled and can carry on to win the whole region."