Christians on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent made their way through ash-covered streets and poor air conditions to attend church Sunday for the first time since the eruption of the La Soufrière volcano more than a week before.
Over the past week, ministry leaders worked together to organize resources and care for those displaced by the disaster. Around 20,000 people have evacuated from their homes in the northern areas closest to the explosions, which could continue for weeks.
Many churches remain closed, and several church buildings in the region near the volcano—including a Baptist and a Pentecostal sanctuary—were destroyed when their roofs collapsed under the weight of a foot or two of fallen ash. But in the “green zones” to the south, church leaders were able to spend a couple hours together in worship.
Pastor Kelron Harry gathered with Arnos Vale Church of the Nazarene, a congregation of 190 people. Harry, the district superintendent for the Nazarenes, has spent every day since the eruption messaging fellow denominational and ministry leaders and helping with relief efforts.
They update each other on the safety of their members, receive donations at the ports, and coordinate to get supplies and water to not only the 3,000 people in shelters but to the majority of evacuees who are staying with friends and family. Churches are also preparing and serving meals for the displaced.
This is the first volcanic eruption on St. Vincent in 42 years, and because they don’t know when the eruption will be over, people are afraid and anxious. The island was already struggling because so many people work in restaurants and hotels, which suffered widespread shutdowns due to the coronavirus.
“We are trying to do what’s necessary and bring hope,” said Harry. “We want to do that by sharing the gospel, but we also hope they see it in us as we extend a hand of compassion to them.”
Local church leaders have partnered with local businesses and ministries in nearby islands, such as Is There Not A Cause (ITNAC), a Christian relief org based in Trinidad and Tobago that has sent palates of water along with supplies like toiletries, batteries, lamps, and masks. Nazarene Compassionate Ministries and the Trinidad and Tobago Nazarene district sent supplies through the local port.
Despite the difficulty of seeing their home in crisis because of the volcano, pastors say see God’s grace to them through the body of Christ stepping up to help.
“I’m seeing the goodness of people coming out. Many persons who are searching, who are looking for hope, they’ll see it too,” said Harry. “Despite the volcano, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, God is still at work.”
One of the providential ministry partners has been OM Ships, which conducts Christian outreach through port visits. Its vessel Logos Hope spent three months in St. Vincent’s capital and main port, Kingstown, at the start of the year. It was close enough to return with aid after the eruption.
Last week, the ship pumped 40,000 gallons of desalinated water for citizens whose supply had been contaminated with ash, plus a firetruck made two runs to supply water to a local prison.
“We absolutely saw God’s timing in that our planned visit came at a time of great need for people,” said OM Ships spokeswoman Julie Knox.
People on Logos Hope were able to meet and pray with the people of St. Vincent as they distributed hundreds of clothing items, hygiene packs, gospel leaflets, kids games, and coloring books, as well as frozen food and freshly baked bread. A small team of crewmembers stayed behind to continue to assist while the ship moved on to Curaçao for maintenance.
“Being able to minister to people in need in this way was a great boost to the ship’s volunteers, who have had usual outreach curtailed by the pandemic,” Knox said. The ship will be back in Kingstown next month for a longer stay.
In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, about three-quarters of the population is Protestant, and the disaster stands to have long-term impacts on the churches there. While congregations in hazardous zones were prepared to move online after doing virtual worship during the pandemic, most do not have setups for digital giving.
Also, because many church buildings are erected over the course of years through volunteer work, it won’t be easy to replace the ones that have been destroyed in a matter of days, Harry said.
The recent volcanic activity represents a change in fate for St. Vincent, which has historically been spared the hurricane disasters that have hit fellow islands in the Caribbean. The country’s indigenous name, Hairouna, designates it “the land of the blessed.” Harry worries that Christians have become complacent and need to call out to God.
“The entire nation has been covered in ashes. When I look in the Bible, ashes speak to the mortality of man, and ashes also represent repentance,” said Harry, who preached on those themes at his church on Sunday. “The Lord says to us, ‘Pull your sackcloth. Call on me, and I will save you.’ We all need to take responsibility and repent together.”
He also has reminded his congregation and fellow Nazarenes that their current circumstances do not change the reality of God’s love and care for them.
“I understand that we do live in a broken world, and nature has been affected also,” he said. “We will see volcanos; we will see hurricanes. I also believe God is a God who restores.”
Baptist Press reported on church efforts led by pastor Cecil Richards at Kingstown Baptist Church, about 10 miles south of the volcano.
Richards was a kid when the 1979 eruption took place, the very same week as this one. But many in the island don’t remember another disaster like this.
“We have faced crisis before, but we have come through,” Richards told worshipers last Sunday during a virtual church service. “And in this period with the confluence coming together with so many different things at once, particularly the coronavirus, and the COVID aftermath and the volcano, this is an accentuated crisis for us.”
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