A small group of us were discussing the Come Follow Me lesson for that week via a Zoom meeting. The group leader asked a question for discussion: “The primary reason we meet together on the Sabbath is to take the Sacrament. During the pandemic, we have established we can take the Sacrament and hold worship services at home. Why should we return to church?”
A number of thoughts were shared about a variety of benefits that result from worshiping together. We didn’t realize then, that within the next few days we would learn important lessons about that question.
A Catastrophic Flood
I live in a town located in the middle of Michigan. We had several inches of rain that pounded our area throughout a 24-hour period, falling on ground that was already saturated by prior rainfall. The Tittabawassee River flows through our town and warnings were issued that the swollen river would be at flood level. Homeowners knew that some basements might be vulnerable to water.
Then, a catastrophe occurred. Upstream from the river was Wixom Lake. A dam on that lake that controlled spillage from the lake into the river completely failed, causing water to burst through. The entire lake consisting of 21.5 billion gallons, emptied into the river in only one hour. Huge amounts of water rushed downstream engulfing a second downstream lake, causing the dam on that lake to fail as well. The torrent of water from those two lakes cascaded down the river into our town and surrounding towns causing a flood event described as the state’s worst in 500 years.
Over 10,000 people were evacuated from their homes. When they returned the next day, many found homes swamped with water. In numerous houses the water had risen to high levels on the first floor. In neighborhoods nearest the lakes, some houses were completely submerged or washed away. Sanitary sewer pumps had failed, so there were homes with sewage. Power was out in some neighborhoods. Roads and bridges were ripped up or underwater making it difficult to reach people in need.
Many local groups immediately jumped into organizing assistance. Some leaders in our ward began putting together a plan to support our devastated community. They put out a call for help to members of the Church from all over the state and anyone else who wanted to join us. The Church quickly sent a truckload of much needed cleaning supplies, shop vacs, and generators. Advance teams from our ward went door to door in the impacted neighborhoods assessing who needed help and which homes were of highest priority. Anyone requesting assistance was placed on our list.
Over the first two days more than 2,500 volunteers poured into the church parking lot. Work crews were sent out to assigned homes. They formed bucket brigades to haul yards of mud out of houses. They removed water soaked carpeting and dry wall. They carried ruined furniture and belongings to the curb. They helped people search through rubble and debris for treasured possessions that could be saved. They offered compassion, standing beside distraught homeowners as they cried.
One volunteer described her experience:
Beyond humbled this morning as we worked with hundreds of others to help many of the victims of the horrible flooding in the Midland area. I have honestly never worked harder in anything than I did this morning. The home our “crew” was assigned to belonged to an 84-year-old woman whose husband died just 10 weeks ago. Her home flooded through two full floors and a little bit into the third. It was heartbreaking, and all the other homes in her neighborhood were in similar shape. The sweet woman who lived here returned to her home to see what we were doing. She was in tears and was so grateful for the help. I am thankful for this opportunity to serve today.
Our “Helping Hands” teams completed cleaning about 350 homes and worked on about 75 others. Seeing so many being willing to serve, doing hard work in muddy, filthy, hot conditions—some driving long distances to do so—for those who so badly needed help, was seeing my town’s community and the church community at their finest. Caring, compassion, and generosity were abundant.
“This is Why We Come Back”
The Come Follow Me group leader who raised the discussion question: “Why return to church?”, was one of the ward leaders who organized our response plan following the flood. As she and I watched volunteers leaving to serve at their assigned homes, she offered a profound response to her own question.
She said, “This. We all have tragedies and challenges that occur throughout our lives. We cannot bear them alone. We need a community to help us. We also need the opportunity to offer compassion and service within a community in order to become more like Christ. This is why we come back to church—for that community.”
Our church community is essential to support and lift us up when we cannot do it alone. Our church community beckons us to love and care for others.
So What is the Lesson?
When we are able to worship together again, there will likely be talks, discussions, and testimonies concerning lessons learned during our time of sheltering-at-home. For example, many of us have reflected on the value of slowing down and appreciating more time with family. We can ponder those lessons as we return to worship together.
But, I hope that our talks, discussions, and testimonies do not focus solely on our time alone with ourselves or our families.
Instead, having been forced to spend time apart from our church family, we now have a unique opportunity to reflect upon what we want our ward or branch community to look like going forward. How do we bind our hearts together in community to an even greater extent? How can our ward or branch be more inclusive? How can each of us get outside our typical group of friends and better interface with all in our unit? How can we better welcome newcomers and integrate converts? How can we join together to serve within our larger community? How can we arrive to our Sunday meetings truly appreciating the opportunity to join together in worship and prepared to participate more fully?
Perhaps when we are able to gather together again, we can invest time in focusing upon how we can strengthen our ward or branch community so that each member knows with certainty where he or she might turn for friendship, support, strength, and encouragement.