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A preacher and a bar owner

Carl Williamson

Carl Williamson is a minister at the Gateway Church of Christ in Holmdel, New Jersey. Just days after the storm, Carl spearheaded the creation of Gateway Disaster Response, a ministry aimed at coordinating recovery efforts in the nearby town of Union Beach. A largely blue-collar community on the Raritan Bay, Union Beach received some of the worst devastation from Hurricane Sandy. In his narrative, Carl discusses the origins of the ministry, its work over the past two years, and how his personal faith has helped him in his work.


How have you been involved in the response to Hurricane Sandy?

Our church, Gateway Church of Christ, was established one year prior to Hurricane Sandy. It was founded by a group of people who wanted to be a part of a church that did something. Three days after the storm, we brought $90,000 worth of supplies here into Union Beach, and that was the first supplies that were brought into the area. Since then, we’ve been working with recovery efforts here in Union Beach, bringing in several million dollars worth of supplies, as well as coordinating efforts with volunteers. That group is called the Gateway Disaster Response. It’s a Ministry of the Gateway Church of Christ.

Gateway Disaster Response is a team that helps in the recovery efforts. At first we were just bringing supplies. We didn’t know what we could do, but I believe God brought about the opportunity for ministry and that’s why we established Gateway Disaster Response. Now, United Way works underneath Gateway Response. All of their volunteers come to us and we place them and get them working. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Team Effort, which are more national volunteer organizations. Volunteer organizations like Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund gives us grants. There’s a lot of non-profits we’ve worked with from the beginning.

What about some local businesses you’ve worked with, like Jakeabob’s restaurant? Can you describe your experiences with local businesses?

Here in Union Beach, they have the mayor and council who are sort of the main leaders but also there are business owners. Gigi Dor owns Jakeabob’s restaurant, and her restaurant had been destroyed. She was very well connected with the problem of what’s going on, but couldn’t really do much because her restaurant was totally gone. So she came here and started helping in the relief efforts. Gigi and I were really sort of the key leaders in Union Beach to organize the resource center here with supplies and that’s also where we started to organize a database of individual needs and assessing what was needed in this area. We’ve worked together fruitfully for a long time, and still do. Now we run a community restaurant together here in town, so that’s come out of Hurricane Sandy. It’s called “A Spoonful of Hope.”

What led you to become involved in the recovery efforts?

I believe that what brought me here was an answer to prayer, because I definitely didn’t want to come here. However, the day after the storm, my wife and I had gotten down on our knees, prayed, and said “God, if there’s some way we can help people, you show us that way.” That day, one of our leaders drove to our house because he couldn’t get ahold of us through phones or any other means. He said, “Hey, we have these supplies that are going to come two days from now. Let’s figure out what to do with them”. So we went down to the municipal building in Holmdel where they said, “You know, we don’t need these supplies, but the place that needs the supplies is this place called Union Beach.” I had never been to Union Beach before, but I believe that was a direct answer to that prayer that my wife and I prayed that morning.

Do you have any experiences in the recovery effort that you would like to share?

Going through a disaster brings everybody closer together in a way that nothing else really can. You get to create a bond with a group of volunteers, workers and affected homeowners that come together. A year and a half since Sandy, this resource center has become a big family. Now, a lot of those individuals will get together for dinners. We’ve become close friends, we get together and hang out together, and all of those people from this area who are here every day. It’s created unity and structure that has been really healthy for people. Although there’s been really bad things that occurred, I’ll take this away as something really good that has occurred. Another thing is, I believe that Hurricane Sandy has broken down a lot of barriers. Gigi Dor’s Jakeabob’s Restaurant is also a bar. A bar owner and a preacher wouldn’t be the closest of friends, but now, we are family and super close. Prior to that, she probably wouldn’t have hung out with a preacher, and I probably wouldn’t have hung out with a bar owner. Yet, there’s some connection there that’s kind of neat. I think that’s just one story that illustrates what has occurred time and time again. Neighbors have told me that they had never spoken to the person to the left or the right of them in ten years of living and now they are best friends. There’s something that occurred there that was so beneficial to the community.

How has the relief effort impacted your church?

It has taken quite a toll on the church. When you engage in a large effort, all your resources end up going there. Then the business that you’re doing as a church gets put on the backburner. Although there have been definite benefits to the church, in the sense of creating community and creating a very clear direction, it’s been hard on the leadership. However, there are quite a few residents from the Bayshore area that now attend our church. I’d say about another 20 or 30 people came to our church because of our relief efforts that we’ve been doing.

Now it’s trying to figure out a way to return back to the church type work while also having this ministry that’s become really huge. I see church as something God directs, and He’s throwing this into the mix. Even though it’s tough for our leaders to try to wrap their minds around how to go forward, it will be a good thing that we’ve struggled through and endured the helping of people.

The other part is that is that it’s very tiring when you help people and when you see their plight or their pain. That’s really hard for your church members, and it’s also hard for your leaders because they get worn out from seeing so much pain. Gateway, being integrally involved, you feel a sense of that emotional struggle because you feel with the homeowners and that is hard for your church and your church members.

What helps you get through the hard times and feeling worn out?

If I didn’t have a relationship with God, I don’t know how I would get through. I feel like having a trust in God and having faith is what pushes me forward to the next day. Some people, struggling through their pain have gone to alcohol, or lost their their families through divorce, or their jobs. People in the community have struggled with dealing with emotions and that’s what’s occurred. Loss of jobs because of depression, or loss of a husband or wife because they can’t seem to get along anymore. There’s also an increasing level of alcohol and drug addiction.

For me, it, I have to go back to prayer. I have to go back to God and say, “You’ve got this, it’s not on me” but then pray for those individuals. That’s what I do and that’s how I get through.

What are your personal goals of the recovery effort?

We would like to see Gateway Disaster Response helping individuals in case of future disasters, but also helping an individual’s disasters that would occur normally on any given year. There’s still going to be seniors, there’s still going to be poverty in the Bayshore area, and so we want to be a non-profit that steps in and helps people in their individual disasters, and there in case of future large scale disasters like Sandy. Regardless of whether or not there is a large scale disaster, there is always work to do, and because we’ve connected with a lot of volunteer organizations, we have a way of connecting volunteers with work. There are thousands of volunteers every year in America. They want work to do, and they want it to be meaningful. Our team has learned how to create meaningful work, helping the homeowner and helping the volunteer connect, so that everyone wins. The volunteers feel like that they helped somebody, and the homeowner feels like they have been helped and they appreciate that. That’s our future goal, to continue to be that as well as be able to go to disasters that occur. One of our team leaders right now went to the tornados in Illinois because we have experience with how to deal with disasters. We want to try to share some of that experience.

What are your views on the federal government’s response?

It’s always hard for the federal government, because it’s such a large entity. Decisions are made by a large number of people and then it all gets blamed on the President or the Senators. The struggle is that the federal government is huge and their leadership is so far removed from the problems in small cities.

I’ve always been an advocate of smaller government. Not politically so, but smaller government in the sense that I’d rather see non-profits, churches, and individual organizations in communities work within those communities to try to figure out solutions and I would’ve rather had my federal dollars given to organizations like that. However, we currently live within a federal system that’s actually very opposed to giving to religious organizations for reasons I understand. But when a disaster occurs, those are the organizations that already have volunteers, already have a staff person whose schedule is somewhat flexible, who is available and ready to help his or her community.

Have you seen help from more local governments?

If Gateway as a church would have come into Union Beach a week before the storm and said we want to help, we would have been met with discord or frustration. The storm levels a community and that’s what happened in the Bayshore area, but specifically in Union Beach. It leveled the playing field where the local government, Mayor Paul Smith and the council did a good job just saying, “We need help, we don’t care where the help comes from.” Although they oversaw and made sure that nothing crazy was going on, they allowed organizations, Christian, non-Christian, non-profits, all to come in to help. I feel like that was the right decision. They stepped away and did their part as local government but allowed everybody else to come in and help. It brought this small community millions of dollars it never would have had if they had pushed everyone away. It seems when I look out on a broader scale in New Jersey, that there were some towns that were less inviting for non-profits and churches. For my perception, they received less aide, because those organizations can bring in quite a few resources that have benefited Union Beach.

What were some challenges in the beginning?

One of the biggest challenges is knowing when to transition. You get basic supplies when you first have a disaster, and it’s everything from used clothes to boxes of macaroni. It’s knowing how long to allow those basic supplies to take root because if you let the basic supplies be here too long, it pushes the community down. You become a long term food bank that sorts and all you do is provide basic necessities. The problem with a disaster like Sandy is, you need to move forward in providing larger scale help with construction and revalidation of the town. That was a struggle to figure out how you transition out of the basic supplies when people still want to send them.

There was a time in which I kind of stood up and put myself out there and said, “We are getting rid of all basic food, supplies, and we’re transitioning, moving to disaster supplies”. Many of the volunteers who had been in the area day in and day out were very mad at me, thinking that I was getting rid of something that was being given freely, but it pushed all those basic supplies to other towns and we started receiving the first construction materials like sheet rock, insulation, plywood, and 2×4’s. Most of the volunteers apologized and said I was right. It’s really hard, because in the moment you don’t want to turn anything away, because you see the plight of your town. That was a hard transition and I think that is when Gateway Disaster Response transitioned to become a volunteer reconstruction organization.

What are some challenges that the people still face?

The greatest challenge that people face today is that most people outside of the Bayshore believe that everything’s fixed. Resources are completely dwindling and financial resources aren’t there for people to finally rebuild. Although there’s quite a bit of construction that’s going up, there’s still many homeowners that just don’t have anything to go forward. The biggest struggle for homeowners now is that if they don’t have the money, if they didn’t get a grant or if they don’t get someone funding their rebuild, it’s going to take them a long time to figure out and to get back in their homes.

How has the relief process changed over time?

It’s transitioned from basic supplies to construction materials to volunteer labor and rehabilitation of the community. In larger scale, how do we rehabilitate this town? A year and a half into the process, we redid one of the parks, because although getting people in their homes is of upmost importance, there’s something to be said for a community where you also have a place for kids to play. You have to keep some balance between people who are living in the town who are back home and those who are struggling to get back home. The ones who are struggling to get back home although they might say, “Well, why are you building a park when I am not even back in my home?” But it might also give them the encouragement to say, “You know what, I want to live in this town because this town takes care of itself, it fixes up its parks, it fixes up its roads.”As the time has passed, there has been road construction, parks have been redone, the whole beachfront has been combed and redone. As families have gotten back home, they have said, “Wow, this is the town that I want to be a part of and be in”.

What do you think can be learned from Sandy?

There’s something to be said about building homes that can withstand storms. Understanding that you can’t really control nature and that the better we construct our homes and the better we put some finances into that, the safer our children and our families are going to be. From my experience in Europe and other parts of the world, I saw that people spend a little bit more time and energy making sure that their homes are engineered correctly and built better. Here in America, we would seem to be about having a new car, a new toy, any new thing, and we throw away the old. We’re very similar to that with our homes. We like to have bigger houses, newer houses, newer things, and so we build our houses very quickly, and sometimes we don’t build them to last.

If I was planning out towns, I would encourage stricter rules on how you build your house. I know that makes housing more expensive, but it potentially saves lives, and if you start the process now, as time goes on you have homes now lasting 500 to 600 years like they do in Europe instead of 150 years. I think that’ll be very beneficial.

Do you have any particularly inspiring stories that you would like to share?

There’s a homeowner up on the beachfront and they were in their home, Bob and Pamela Vazquez, when the storm hit. They got caught in the house and the house totally lifted off the foundation. They eventually then ended up in the water because they needed to get out of the house, and for over an hour, they made their way into another house that was still on its foundation, and their lives were spared. Through that process they have become people who love to give to others. It’s like they have found new life through that and even from that, they were complete atheists before, and now they have found a belief in God. For me, that’s the most kind of inspiring story, someone who didn’t believe in God and through destruction, they have belief. Now, they have spoken to thousands of volunteers and they’ve shared their story. And what a difference it has made in who they are. They have become different people. They are finally about to move back into their home, and they want to have volunteers stay in their home. They want to continue to help their neighbors. It’s made people who are already good people into better people, and that’s inspiring to me.

Interviewed by Grace Jeong
Assisted by Connor Murphy
Edited by Grace Jeong
Union Beach, New Jersey
Recorded April 14, 2015