How a Fifty-Person Church Helped Its Town Rebuild After Superstorm Sandy

When Superstorm Sandy hit the small, working-class community of Union Beach, New Jersey, (population 6,200) in fall 2012, it left 90 percent of the town under water. Out of roughly 2500 homes, 2000 were damaged. A journalist from the online magazine Bustle drove to Union Bay two weeks after Sandy to deliver some coats to residents, but was so traumatized by the devastation she saw that she couldn’t bring herself to get out of the car.

Though that woman hightailed it away from the pain, the 50-member congregation of Gateway Church ran towards it. Gateway was only 13 months old at the time, meeting in a Senior Center located about 5 miles from Union Bay. It’d be easy to understand such a church mourning their neighbors’ pain but excusing themselves from any role in mitigating it. “What difference could a tiny church like ours really make, anyway?” one could imagine them asking.

But they didn’t ask that question.

Instead, the day after the storm, church planters Carl and Alicia Williamson got down on their knees and asked God to “make them aware” of how He wanted to use them and the church for His glory through the disaster. “We just wanted to have a positive impact on the community,” Williamson says. “From the start we desired to be that church around the corner that actually makes a difference in people’s lives.”

Initially, Gateway had nothing on hand to offer the storm survivors. But within four days, the Williamsons and other church leaders had coordinated with the disaster relief arm of their denomination to send a tractor trailer with $90,000 worth of desperately needed supplies to Union Bay. Within weeks, Gateway had become operation central for handling and distributing what ultimately turned into over $1 million dollars in donations from individuals, churches, and businesses around the nation. The church also set up an online volunteer hub to coordinate out-of-state work teams and sent out impassioned pleas for help. Over the next few years, some 17,000 volunteers showed up to clean and rebuild.

Most importantly, the members of Gateway Church stayed engaged long after the spotlight turned away from New Jersey. They had not just handed out supplies. They had gotten to know the people of Union Bay. They were committed not just to relief but to restoration.

Gateway applied for and received a Work Force Development grant six months after Sandy that enabled it to hire ten employees. These workers organized and helped oversee volunteer work teams coming in to rebuild and restore Union Bay’s homes and businesses. Separately, Gateway hired a full-time contractor (using other donated funds), who ensured that the teams performed quality work and had the materials and tools required.

 

Investing in Business

Carl and Alicia came alongside Gigi and Wally Liaguno-Dorr, owners of Union Bay’s Jakeabob’s Bay Restaurant, in the early days of the crisis. The popular coastal eatery was totally wiped out by Sandy. Church leaders understood the importance of getting this business—which was a key community gathering place among this small town’s residents—back on its feet. Gigi and Wally were natural leaders in the town’s recovery efforts, and Carl recognized that. As he poured Christ’s love into the couple, they responded, eventually joining the congregation. Gateway raised funds to help the Dorrs open Jakeabob’s Off the Bay in a new location. When it opened in March 2013, Carl was there to perform a blessing on the new business.

The restaurant’s tables were constructed from the (cleaned-up and refurbished) front doors of some of the 175 homes that Sandy washed away. For Gigi, this was all part of her business’s effort to “keep the spirit of the town alive.” Union Bay patrons said they liked to sit at the table made from their own home’s old door.

The effects of a disaster like Superstorm Sandy linger on years after most people have forgotten all about the crisis. With community members in Union Bay and surrounding villages still hurting in 2014, Gateway and the Dorrs partnered to open “Spoon Full of Hope,” a community kitchen housed at Jakeabob’s. Every Wednesday night, locals could come for a “pay as you can” meal. As Gigi explained to a local newsman:

I knew there were people who were in need and I thought it would be great if people could come in and pay what they could and if they were unable to pay, they could come and volunteer or prep or clean up. If people are able to pay, then they can leave a small donation and pay it forward….Really, the spirit here is neighbors helping neighbors.

The ministry continued for two years. Then, Wally and Gigi closed Jakeabob’s Off the Bay and began the long process of restarting their business on their original waterfront site. These days they spend innumerable hours running a Tiki Bar and mobile kitchen over there. They hope over time to save sufficient dollars to rebuild the full-scale restaurant.

Meanwhile, Gateway Church has continued to express its love of ministry and business by coming alongside member Diane Saddler in support of her new post-Sandy venture, Heavenly Scents Cleaning Company. Saddler had been a part-owner in another cleaning business. But after she came to Christ at Gateway, she decided she wanted to launch her own business that she’d run as a Christian enterprise. She named it Heavenly Scents and pledged to share 15 percent of the profits with Gateway.

Church members put up the seed capital at the end of last year. Saddler lists Gateway as a sponsor on her advertising fliers—which also include the church’s logo, address, and service time. “Sometimes we’ll send our associate pastor over, and he’ll pray with all the cleaners before their day starts,” Williamson says. “And a couple of times we’ve done a leadership training for them. And I meet with Diane, and we talk through how the business is going and how she’s treating the customers and that kind of stuff. So it is a joint partnership, although it really is her business.”

Williamson acknowledged that closely aligning with the business carries some risks. After all, if a customer is highly dissatisfied for some reason, that person might think poorly of Gateway. But Carl recognizes that the Gateway name is an asset for Saddler. Given its outsized contribution to Sandy relief over several years, Gateway is appreciated and well-known in the area. Carl doesn’t believe in hoarding any blessing and so feels OK about Saddler’s fliers. Besides, he jokes, “They are free advertising for the church.”

Saddler typically has two to three employees on the payroll. She has good contacts in the area and thus far business is going well. Heavenly Scents has a contract with a large apartment complex, for example, and several church members have hired the company for cleaning their own homes. The firm is operating in the black and has more money in the bank than its original $2000 in seed capital. True to her word, Saddler gave 15 percent of the 2016 profits to Gateway at the end of last year. Since the business had only been running a couple months, the amount was a modest few hundred dollars. “I don’t know how much they’ve made so far this year,” Williamson chuckles, “but I’m assuming that check is going to be in the thousands of dollars this year.”

Photo Credit: Photo by Tanya Breen, Gannet News

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Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP).