JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Kay Wheeler was reading the Bible Sunday morning, inside the brick rambler she’s called home for a quarter-century, just a block away from the St. John’s River. She had lost power for several days when Hurricane Irma — by then downgraded to a tropical storm — hit Jacksonsville, as fallen trees and limbs enveloped her house, knocking down wires and fences and the like.
With her husband battling gout in his knee and having been at the hospital just two days earlier, Wheeler had cleaned up the front yard by herself. But she sought a little divine intervention to finish the rest.
Help arrived — and it collectively wore yellow Mormon Helping Hands T-shirts.
Her 49-year-old daughter had found an online connection to the LDS Church-sponsored volunteer crews completing work orders for disaster relief. A crew of nearly 20 individuals — members and missionaries of the church’s Jacksonville Young Single Adult Branch — went to Wheeler’s home and promptly went to work.
Within two hours, downed trees were cut up and stacked, broken-off limbs were hauled out, the leaves and debris were blown out of roof gutters — and Kay Wheeler was singing praises and sharing thanks.
“If God hadn’t answered my prayers, I don’t know what I would have done,” she said, watching the workers in her backyard wrap up their two-hour effort. “I’m so thankful — you don’t know how thankful I am.”
From there, the work crew under branch President Gene Patch went a couple of doors down to the man who had loaned a ladder to get on top of the Wheeler house — and started in on his yard. Others broke off to tackle the marsh grass, trash and errant boards from someone else’s damaged dock that flood waters had deposited in Robin Evans’ nearby backyard bordering the St. John’s River.
“A wonderful band of Mormon children came and cleaned the marsh grass out,” said Evans, who has been battling the heat, the humidity and her high blood pressure in trying to do it herself.
“That’s kind of how it works,” said Patch, a Jacksonville dentist and former LDS Church stake president. “You just go down through the neighborhood.”
Sunday is normally a day of rest from labors for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But when the proverbial ox is in the flood-saturated mire, like many are in metro Jacksonville post-Irma, the Sabbath can take a dual role — a brief sacrament service followed by working to serve others.
That was the case Sunday at the LDS Church’s Jacksonville Florida East Stake Center on Hendricks Avenue, where some 700 people gathered for a sacrament service and listened to a trio of LDS leaders who for the third day were visiting Irma-devastated areas and expressing appreciation for relief efforts.
President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the LDS Church’s First Presidency, highlighted the hourlong Sunday worship service, with brief remarks also given by Elder Jörg Klebingat, a General Authority Seventy; and Bishop Dean M. Davies, first counselor in the church’s Presiding Bishopric.
“The things the Lord might have you do are very difficult, and there are times in the midst of this and after this that you’ll ask yourself, ‘Did I do it well enough?’ And I’ll be honest with you, all of us struggle with that,” President Eyring said.
“I’ll just tell this about you — you’re better than you think you are.”
He added: “You’re not perfect – but oh, my, you’re wonderful. What you’ve done during this time of difficulty and with others around you, a lot of you have forgotten yourselves and gone to work in doing what the Lord would do, you being the Lord’s servants.
“I want you to know that I admire all that you’ve done — and the Lord admires you,” he continued. “It may not have been everything you could have done, but you did what you could do. And you’ll surprisingly find yourself the next time able to do even more, because you do grow, and in his (the Lord’s) service, you grow, you’re magnified, you’re getting better.”
Many attending the morning worship service were wearing their Sunday-best dress, while a good number of others sported T-shirts, jeans, camo pants, work boots – attire to get out and get involved soon after the meeting was over. Many were seen coming out after the meeting, having swapped Sunday clothes for work clothes.
A similar worship service took place earlier, at 6:45 a.m., in the same building, with the congregation appearing to be “a sea of yellow shirts” comprised of nearly 1,000 individuals ready to accept Mormon Helping Hands work orders as soon as the meeting concluded.
That included some 600 volunteers from an LDS stake in Macon, Georgia, where on short notice Friday night they got up at 4 a.m. Saturday, worked throughout the day on Helping Hands projects, camped on church meetinghouse grounds and got up early Sunday for church and more work.
Volunteers came from other neighboring states as well, including North and South Carolina. One young man from Vermont hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., took a train to Jacksonville and then hired an Uber driver to take him to anywhere he could help. He got dropped off at the same Jacksonville East stake center, where he pitched a tent, then pitched in to work for the weekend.
Besides helping their own members and in turn the members' neighbors, the LDS Church is finding its interfaith relationships strengthened as well.
For example, consider the tent city of volunteers camping on the recreational property behind the Jacksonville East stake center — some onlookers had wondered if it wasn’t a collection of refugees from flooded areas.
Leaders of a neighboring Episcopalian church learned of the camping volunteers and offered the use of restroom and showering facilities next door for women.
Elsewhere, a Baptist church that several years ago was known for its anti-Mormon messages reached out this week to LDS leaders. Knowing of the influx of arriving volunteers who needed a place to put tents and campers, the Baptist leader offered the LDS Church a sizeable field to accommodate guests. The LDS Church returned the favor by providing 75 boxes of food as a gesture of gratitude.
Meanwhile, the Baptist pastor’s son, who owns a tool supply business, learned of LDS leaders hoping to acquire more chainsaws for volunteer crews. With the LDS leaders putting in an order of 100 chainsaws, the pastor’s son drove to Orlando and back to fill the order himself, charging only his cost for the saws.
Irma packed its most powerful punches last week for the Caribbean and southern Florida, with record 185-mph winds while the Category 5 hurricane was in the Atlantic. Although a tropical storm by the time it reached Jacksonville and northeastern Florida, it was still whipping up 70-mph winds, causing plenty of damage and adding substantial rain to saturated water systems already dealing with tidal flows and horrendous storm surges.
Floodingexceeded that of 1965’s Hurricane Dora by at least one foot, reaching three feet above Jacksonville's normal flood levels and easily pouring over the seawalls and sandbags.
Throughout Sunday in Jacksonville, kindnesses continued to return full circle for volunteers.
An elderly woman reached out for Mormon Helping Hands assistance Sunday morning — someone else’s dock had washed up on her property along the St. John’s River, and when she contacted another organization to have it removed, she was told it was too much work.
An LDS-associated crew from Blountstown and Panama City in the Florida panhandle, some three hours away, responded and had it done before 10 a.m. Sunday.
Said Heber Meeks of the woman they had served: “She left us biscuits and sausages on our car seats.”