What do you do when a monstrous hurricane swallows everything you own? How do you recover and rebuild? A Port St. Joe minister is tasked now with putting his own family back together, and with helping an entire community find hope and healing after the storm.
Dr. Geoffrey Lentz comes from a long line of ministers dedicated to helping others. In fact, the Port St. Joe pastor was returning from a ministry trip to Africa as Michael chased his family and smacked his community. He was able to briefly Facetime his wife, Liz, to plan the prep and evacuation.
“She had about 6 hours to get our belongings together,” said Dr. Lentz.
Lentz was a passenger on one of the last international flights allowed to land in Atlanta the day of the storm. The next night, he joined one of the first groups allowed back into Port St. Joe. He thought he was prepared after seeing a few photos on Facebook.
“I knew that we wouldn’t have much standing,” said Lentz.
But seeing the devastation was a punch in the gut. His home was gone, and his church and his community were in tatters.
“We expected a little bit of water but we didn’t expect the strength of the storm,” said an emotional Lentz.
His wife Liz recalled, “My son stayed up with me after midnight prepping the house and it didn’t matter. It was all gone anyway.”
“You could see in one end (of the parsonage) and out the other,” said Dr. Lentz as Liz added, “For blocks and blocks our possessions are everywhere.”
But for the Lentz family, the storm is about more than their personal loss. It’s about the losses of the church, the people in their congregation and their community. And Dr. Lentz worries that the area that has been affectionately known as the “forgotten coast” because of its pristine, undeveloped coastline will truly become forgotten as recovery efforts linger.
“When the MRE’s and water stop coming in, larger cities and communities will be remembered but the forgotten coast is likely to be forgotten by many because most people don’t even know about Port St. Joe. Nobody really knew about Mexico Beach until it was wiped away. I want people to remember,” said Lentz.
And so Lentz works to keep the focus on the cruelty the storm caused in their community, but at the same time, offering words of hope and healing to the many he is charged with leading.
“It’s okay to admit that our community as we know it is over. There’s an ending of a sort. There’s not a lot left. We need to grieve it. But faith teaches us that in every ending there is a new beginning. There is a resurrection. Resurrection doesn’t mean everything is going to be the same. There is destruction, there is destruction, there is nothingness and despair but in the midst of that somehow, miraculously maybe, there is new beginning.”
Liz adds that it’s important to take things slowly. “When I don’t have all the answers, I just say I know what I’m doing today or at least for the next hour.”
And they both hope that Michael’s victims can find time to focus on the good that can be found. Sometimes that’s cherishing what Michael didn’t gobble up, like his great grandfather’s bible that was found by a neighbor, a sentimental cross, and an outside cat that they were forced to leave when running from the storm.
“When I got home and saw her, I grabbed that cat and I just wept and was delighted and said, hey, this is our first survivor,” said Lentz.
Surviving and thriving. That’s the message Lentz hopes to share to as many as possible, for as long as it takes.
Lentz said, “We are each to take one step forward for ourselves every day, even if it’s a small step. One step forward for ourselves, our family and our children. Then, on the other foot, take one step forward for our neighbors and our community. And if everybody does that, with both feet forward just a little bit every day, in a couple of weeks, a few months, a few years, we will end up in a really great place.”
First United Methodist Church in Pensacola is a collection point for donations for the Port St. Joe and surrounding areas in the Florida Panhandle. For a link to their website and a list of suggested items, go to the link in Drexel’s story on our website, wkrg.com (LINK: www.fumcpensacola.com).