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Rockaway Church Is Port In A Storm


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the Latin Grammy Awards were held last night in Las Vegas. We'll check in with the hosts from NPR Music's ALT.LATINO podcast to hear about some of the artists who made an impression.

But, first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality and today we are talking about the role that faith institutions can play during a crisis.

President Obama visited areas yesterday that were affected by Superstorm Sandy. It's been nearly three weeks and residents in Rockaway, Queens say their area still looks like a war zone. The peninsula was hit hard by a tidal surge and some parts were badly burned.

In the days and weeks after Sandy, St. Francis de Sales Parish has become a central command for distributing supplies and coordinating volunteers and joining us now to tell us more about it is Monsignor John Brown of St. Francis.

Monsignor, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. I know you're busy.

MONSIGNOR JOHN BROWN: Thank you, Michel, for speaking to me. I mean, it is very busy, but we're working hard with the help of many people, many different organizations, our community, our government. Everybody's helping.

MARTIN: What are some of the things that are going on there?

BROWN: Right now, we started a center to respond to the hurricane. It basically started with 20 bags of clothing brought in by young people of the parish that wanted to help put together a center. It started in a small chapel and moved to a larger room. James and Eugene Brennan called me. James is from the Catholic Charities in San Diego, California. He offered to come out and to try to help me put together a command center. The first day, we were still recovering ourselves as far as the parish goes. Little by little, it kept growing. The community started it. Our fellow New Yorkers staffed it. It's an incredible attestment to what people can do for themselves when they put their mind to it.

At the present time, we're serving between four and ten thousand people a day. We serve...

MARTIN: What? Four and ten thousand people? Like food and clothes, everything?

BROWN: Yes. That's food, that's clothing, that's toiletries, that's cleaning stuff, everything somebody would need to try to survive day-by-day. We've served over 50,000 people.

MARTIN: Can I just ask, was the church itself damaged? Did you have power, any of that stuff?

BROWN: No. We have nothing, too. We're damaged, also. We're going to - it's going to take us a while to get our act together. I mean, right now, there's no electricity and no heat. The school is shut down because of the same reasons. The convent directory - everything is not functioning.

MARTIN: Can I ask, how are you doing?

BROWN: I'm doing OK. I have amazing people around me. I've been very lucky. I mean, besides the Brennan family helping me out, I have - the mayor's office has been very good to us. You know, the police department, the fire department, the sanitation. The National Guard's been really helpful to us. Bulloch's Gas Station - it's Jim Bulloch's station. He runs it with his sons, Tom and James. They were able to open up for us and get the gas out to people and they did it for free and they were very good in helping and are continuing to do it for us.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, our guest is Monsignor John Brown of St. Francis de Sales Parish in Rockaway, Queens. He's telling us about everything that they're doing there to try to help people get back on their feet after Superstorm Sandy. It's been nearly three weeks and you said that people - it was before things were really organized. People just started coming to the church, even though the church itself was damaged as a building. It's almost as if people just assumed that you'd be the right place to go. Right?

BROWN: Sure. The church is very central here. It's a community of faith. People here have faith in God. That's the bottom line. And so they come to their center of their faith where we practice our faith every week and they came to me. I mean, this is really the community working for the community. Came to me and said, this is what we have to do. Let's start it. I had no idea where this was going to go. There was no big plan to it, except to do good for people and fulfill the mandate of Christ to serve all people.

And, from that beginning, people came forward when things were really kind of hectic. Every time I needed something, it seems like the hand of God handed it to me.

MARTIN: And this isn't just for people who are members of the parish. You're serving...


MARTIN: ...just people who are in the community who need help. Whoever...

BROWN: I'm serving pretty much the whole peninsula right now.

MARTIN: ...comes in.

BROWN: So anybody who comes, we take care of.

MARTIN: You were saying earlier that people brought so many clothes, you don't really need any more clothes right now except for what? Maybe winter coats or something?

BROWN: Right. Winter coats, maybe blankets, but everything else, we're shutting down because everybody's been supplied.

MARTIN: That's kind of amazing.

BROWN: It is. I mean, right now and going into the future, we probably will need some type of corporate sponsorship as far as getting us cards, gift cards to give out to people. That's what's going to be needed in the future more than anything else.

MARTIN: And you're doing all this and you still don't have power yourself.

BROWN: Right. I'm not living at my rectory because it's uninhabitable right now. The church, we're able to open up every day with the help of generators. We have a mass every day and then we have to close down at night.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that too though. Are you able - church isn't just a building. Things happen all week long.

BROWN: All week long.

MARTIN: Services, study - yeah.

BROWN: Yeah. It's a very - yeah. Right. It's a very healthy church and parish and we have a lot of organizations. Everything is going every day and everything now has just stopped because of the tragedy.

MARTIN: Are you able to hold services?

BROWN: Three masses on Sunday and I have one during the week. One a day. And we've been able to hold it together.

MARTIN: You may laugh at my question, but I want to ask you...

BROWN: Sure.

MARTIN: ...what's keeping you going?

BROWN: Two things: My faith, my faith in God - all things are possible with God. And I love people. I like working with people. I like - and I like solving problems. And God has sent me all the things I need to solve the problems. I'm very hopeful. Everything is going to be rebuilt. This time next year we can talk again and I can tell you how good everything is, because of the community, because of all these people are helping us.

MARTIN: Well, that's a date.

BROWN: OK, you got a date.

MARTIN: I'm putting it on my calendar. That's a date.

BROWN: There you go.

MARTIN: All right.

BROWN: There you go.

MARTIN: Monsignor John Brown is the senior pastor at Saint Francis de Sales Parish in Rockaway, Queens. He's been working, as you heard him say, along with many members of the community to help the area recover from Superstorm Sandy.

Monsignor, thank you so much for speaking with us. Thanks for taking the time.

BROWN: Thank you too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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