Living in the Caribbean, you learn to deal with hurricanes. It comes with the territory. But this past September two record-breaking storms – Irma and Maria – passed through the Caribbean and changed everything.
Stephane Brooks, Spiritual Director of Emmaus Ministries for The Upper Room, was born and raised on the tiny island of St. Martin. As the storms battered his homeland, Stephane worked to maintain contact with family members from his home in Nashville. They all survived, but in the following weeks Stephane noticed something different in his conversations with friends and family. Listening to the stories as well as the space between their words, Stephane began to hear one word above all others: trauma.
Upon sharing this with Stephen Bryant, The Upper Room’s Publisher, Stephen encouraged Stephane to connect with the Methodist ministers on the island and find out how The Upper Room could help. In the end, everyone agreed a retreat might offer a chance for the people of St. Martin to share their trauma with God and find healing. Stephen and Stephane decided to go and invited Ellen Alston, a UMC pastor who had survived Hurricane Katrina, and me to join the team.
Signs of Hurricane Irma greeted us as soon as we landed on St. Martin: baggage claim was under a tent on the tarmac, since the island’s modern airport was heavily damaged. Driving to the hotel, we were caught off guard by massive boats and ships that had been turned upside down or swept up onto the road. We stayed in one of the few operational hotels, though much of the building was vacant because many of the rooms – especially the ones on higher levels – were being repaired.
Everywhere there was damage. It was impressive and disturbing.
The retreat was held in the fellowship hall of Cole Bay Methodist Church. It was scheduled for Thursday to Saturday, but after speaking with a number of people we began to worry we wouldn’t see many people until Saturday because of their jobs. But that wasn’t the case. We ended up bringing in more chairs and tables to accommodate all the folks who showed up. The need for healing was real.
We used my newest book, Beads of Healing: Prayer, Trauma, and Spiritual Wholeness, as the basis for the retreat outline and content. We talked about how traumatic events have a physical, emotional, and spiritual impact, and offered ways to deal specifically with the spiritual effects. We encouraged them to be still and to speak their truth and share their story of pain and devastation with God. Though God knows everything that occurred, it’s important for people to tell their story, to put words to the events and feelings, and to recognize that God is listening. We also pointed to the journey that would evolve from such truth-telling; the feelings that would emerge; and the invitation to share those feelings with God so God could redeem them. And on the last day we talked about hope and the promise of God’s healing peace.
Speaking on behalf of the retreat team, it was a powerful experience to journey with the people of St. Martin; to hear their stories of fear, desperation, and loss; to watch them work through the process of being still and being vulnerable before God; and to witness moments of hope as we spent the week together. The last day of the retreat, we awoke to find a vivid rainbow spanning the sky. It was a wonderful reminder of God’s promise to love us and be with us during and after trauma.
The highlights for me were the people of St. Martin. We made many true connections and lasting friendships. Other highlights included how well our team worked together and the opportunity to use my book as the basis for the retreat. I am deeply grateful to The Upper Room for this opportunity. It will live on as a highlight in my own healing journey and the power of God’s deep love.