Christmas Offering: Hurricane Relief with RCA Churches in the U.S. Virgin Islands

Hurricane Irma struck the US Virgin Islands in the first week of September devastating St. Thomas and St. John. My flight to St. Croix was delayed as a result of its path into Florida. On September 12, we landed in St. Croix and were met by piles of debris, some loss of power, but relative normalcy. Just three days later, I received a call from a caring member of St. Croix Reformed Church telling us to get ready. The urgency in her voice made it clear that the approaching hurricane would not be an easy introduction. On the evening of September 19, Category 5 Hurricane Maria struck the island of St. Croix as if taking care of unfinished business.

Two months later, 73% of the USVI is still without power (81% on St. Croix). Those who are privileged enough to afford it have been able to purchase generators that allows for some running water, lights, and refrigeration throughout the day. There are promises of 90% restoration by Christmas but a recent article suggest full restoration won’t be until April 2018. 48,000 electrical poles need replacing and miles of wires need to be run, so we’ll see. Most disconcerting is the impact the hurricane had on the hospital and the schools. Sections of the hospital were condemned. Portable units have been brought in, but services are limited. Eight of the public schools have been condemned which means that students have only recently been back in class and for only half days as they share limited classroom space.

The storm was devastating to say the least, but it exasperated problems on an already under-resourced (and perhaps mismanaged) island. Mental health resources, care for the elderly, and employment have been urgent needs before and especially since the storm. The poverty rate here is 22%. So, while the temporary help supplied by FEMA and non-profits has helped people steady themselves, significant repairs will be needed for the long term. That’s when you will be needed most. Not surprisingly, the predominantly white congregation of SCRC has been able to weather the storm quite well. We are blessed to have families with resources to send package after package to break the monotony and provide some creature comforts from home.

So, I would add that you consider adding advocacy to your charity. Our neighbors and residents of the island are American citizens. Ironically, considering the United States’ fight for independence, they have no representation. These remnants of colonialism have a psychological, social, and economic impact that must be addressed. The Dutch West India Company, financial backers of the Dutch Reformed Church expansion into the states, traded in human beings through these islands making the RCA direct beneficiaries of slavery. Perhaps that makes us all the more responsible. Descendants of those slaves live on these islands today as second-class citizens of a forgotten island. You can remember them.

That said, this is an incredibly resilient island. Our neighbors, many of whom experienced Hurricane Hugo in 1989, were quick with advice and to offer avocado and other produce that flourishes in our own yards to help us get through those first weeks of curfew. The foliage was back and flowers bloomed within a month of being stripped bare. Restaurants are open. Grocery store shelves are reliably stocked. Two months in, debris is now cleared from our neighborhood in preparation for restoration of power. In other words, we see signs of hope and recovery weekly, if not daily. Your kind offer to support us through the Christmas offering is another of those signs. We trust that you will be blessed in your blessing.

~Rev. Peter TeWinkle, Pastor of St. Croix Reformed Church, Kingshill, U.S. Virgin Islands