NEW YORK CITY — After a solid month of daily service to victims of Hurricane Sandy’s fury, missionaries in the New York New York City South and New York New York City North missions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are “moving toward the end of what we can do,” according to one of their missionary leaders.
“We have to be very careful,” said President Kevin Calderwood, who as president of the New York New York City South Mission is responsible for 200 of the LDS missionaries who have been the heart and soul of LDS service efforts in the areas hardest hit by the storm. Sandy hit the northeastern United States on Oct. 29, resulting in 253 fatalities and an estimated $66 billion in damages.
“We’re getting to the point where we’re surpassing our expertise,” Calderwood said. “We’ve gutted a lot of houses. We’ve taken out furniture and flooring and walls and carpet. We’ve disinfected against mold and cleaned up as much as we could. At this point skilled professionals are needed: carpenters, electricians, sheetrock experts. We are hard workers, but we don’t have that expertise.”
Mold conditions are also “getting to where it’s dangerous” because of drywall, carpet and flooring that has been soaking for four weeks in floodwaters, some of which has been contaminated by raw sewage.
“We’re counseling with mold experts,” he said. “There are places we can’t send our missionaries or our volunteers — you have to have HAZMAT suits.”
Consequently, the missionaries are letting community members know that this period of full-time service in the community is coming to an end.
“As it looks right now, Dec. 8 will be our last day,” Calderwood said. “We’ll certainly continue to help as needed. But after Dec. 8, our missionaries will return full-time to their proselyting efforts.”
LDS-driven relief efforts in other areas of the eastern United States are making similar assessments. Andy Zmuda, an LDS stake high councilor who has coordinated relief efforts for the Cherry Hill New Jersey Stake, said church officials are touring the area to see “how much more we can do as volunteers.”
“Sometime between now and the weekend before Christmas we’re going to reach the point where we have to step back and let the professionals take over,” Zmuda said.
Regardless of when the official LDS efforts end, the results will have been impressive. The church’s official Mormon Newsroom website indicated that as of Nov. 27, “more than 21,000 Mormon volunteers have provided nearly 197,000 hours of service.”
“Volunteers have included missionaries and church members from communities on the East Coast and as far away as Idaho and Utah,” the website article said, adding that the church has also “provided around 400,000 pounds of relief supplies so far, including food, water, blankets, hygiene kits, generators, pumps, tarps, cleaning supplies and fuel.”
Zmuda noted that the LDS Church efforts in New Jersey have been part of a concerted effort coordinated by Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters. LDS groups, Catholic Charities (for which Zmuda works professionally as director of asset development), the Zakat Foundation of America (a Muslim-run benevolent organization) and other faith-based relief efforts have been run through VOAD.
Calderwood said his missionaries have also worked closely with the American Red Cross in New York City, where their work has focused in the hard-hit Rockaway Peninsula of Long Island, in the borough of Queens. But he said there were many times his missionaries were the first ones on the scene to offer help to storm victims.
“I’ve heard people refer to us as ‘the little yellow army of happiness,’ or ‘the yellow angels,’” he said, referring to the yellow “Mormon Helping Hands” vests worn by all LDS service volunteers. “People would be sort of overwhelmed, not knowing what to do or where to start. And then we’d come in with all of these smiling faces and start pulling stuff out of their houses. Pretty soon the residents would come to, and step in with us.”
In addition to the missionaries, those “smiling faces” have also included thousands of LDS volunteers like Elise Faust, a high school teacher and a member of the Union Square Young Single Adult Ward in New York City’s financial district. Although a victim of storm damage herself — she just recently was allowed to move back into her apartment after the building was evacuated for more than three weeks for electrical and structural repairs — she has joined members of her ward in making weekly trips to the harder-hit Rockaways to serve others.
“The first two weeks after the storm the singles wards in our area canceled church services on Sunday so we could go out into the community to help,” Faust said. “The family wards did their service on Saturdays. Then we switched for one week so we could serve on Saturday and have our regular church meetings on Sunday. This week we’re going to go out on Saturday again.”
The work is hard and physically demanding, including tearing out drywall, flooring and insulation, hauling out damaged furniture and disinfecting unclean and unsafe areas. Faust proudly notes that the young women in her ward work shoulder to shoulder with the young men despite what she calls “hard, physical, manual labor.”
“Girls are pretty strong,” Faust said. Calderwood agreed, noting with a smile that among his missionaries, “my sisters can outwork my elders.”
While the hard work is “definitely a sacrifice,” Faust says that “if the Savior were here, he would be out in the Rockaways all the time.”
“Me giving one day a week is not that much,” she said.
Emily Hardman, communications director for the Becket Fund, a non-profit organization that works to protect religious freedom, said she finds the physical work exhilarating.
“You have this huge crowbar and you’re hacking at a wall with everything you’ve got,” said Hardman, who traveled to New York from where she lives in Arlington, Va., along with other members of the Colonial 1st Singles Ward. “It’s really kind of therapeutic to be in there demolishing this thing.”
But as satisfying as the physical labor is, Hardman said “just knowing that you were doing something for something that they could not do for themselves” left her smiling.
“When people would see our yellow vests they would cheer and say, ‘the Mormons are here again,’” she said. “It’s great to serve and to help to be part of something so meaningful to so many people.”
Zmuda, who works professionally as director of asset development for Catholic Charities, said the combined efforts of different religious organizations provided an opportunity for different faith groups to serve together and become comfortable with each other. He spoke of arriving at a Catholic-run distribution center, where about 120 people were standing in line for food.
“The truck they were using was empty, and there were still a lot of people needing food and other resources,” Zmuda said. “Then we arrive with this big Deseret Industries truck full of food and supplies, and you could see the enthusiasm grow. It was almost like the cavalry coming — the timing was perfect.”
The best part of the experience, according to Zmjuda, was watching the “chain gang” form to unload the truck.
“There were Mormons, Catholics and people from other faith groups all lining up together to serve,” he said. “We filled up their truck again, then filled their storage unit. There was enough food for everybody. When we were done there was this spontaneous clapping. We all just felt so good that we were able to coalesce so quickly. We were one in purpose, and people were going to be able to leave there with nutritious food.”
The full-time missionaries have had similar experiences as they have reached out to all who are in need of help. One group of missionaries working in Staten Island helped a man remove a safe that was buried in his basement. The man said he didn’t know what was in the safe and the missionaries could just throw it away. The missionaries decided to open the safe and found more than $25,000 in cash that the man had been unaware was in his home.
“The man told the missionaries they should keep the money for themselves,” reported KSL.com’s Stephanie Grimes. “But they told the owner of the safe they weren’t there for the money; they were there to serve. Instead, he should use it to rebuild after the storm.”
One of the priorities for the missionaries has been to help those who are out helping others — firefighters, police officers, electrical technicians and others who have been so busy meeting community needs that they have been unable to take care of their own homes.
“We heard about one of these first responders whose own home was a mess,” Calderwood said. “We dispatched 10 missionaries to his home, and he came back and found that his basement was completely clean. He just put his head on my shoulder and wept.”
The Mormon missionaries and members were out in force during the past weekend, but the work will slow down this week.
“I had to make Monday a mandatory preparation day for our missionaries,” Calderwood said. “They want to be out there all day every day, but I told them, ‘You’ve got to wash those disgusting clothes.’ They will be going back to their normal proselyting activities Tuesday through Thursday, then they will be back for the last two days of full-time service next Friday and Saturday.”
Interestingly, Calderwood said the missionaries will not be returning to proselyte in the areas where most of the relief and recovery work has taken place — at least, not until those areas are "really back up on their feet again."
“We don’t want anyone to feel that we were serving there with an ulterior motive in mind, or that we have any expectations of anyone in return for our service,” he said. “There has been much good will generated, but we didn’t do this for good will. We did it because of genuine Christ-like love for our fellow man. We just want to help.”