The posters contained a simple message: “This Christmas is Different.”
For residents of Schoharie, this message, used to publicize a “Blue Christmas” service held by Schoharie United Presbyterian Church, rang especially true.
Traditionally, Blue Christmas church services are geared toward people who are depressed during the holidays, particularly those grieving the loss of a loved one. But the service at the Presbyterian church was for the entire community, which was devastated by flooding at the end of August. About 100 attended the service last Sunday, including people who had not been to church since the flood. Afterward, they gathered together in celebration in the church sanctuary.
The Rev. Bebb Stone, pastor at Schoharie United Presbyterian Church, was living in the church manse when the flood hit, and the damage forced her to relocate to a two-bedroom apartment. She said her message at the Blue Christmas service was inspired by a darning egg — an old-time tool inserted into a sock while it is being repaired — that she recovered from the muck.
“I said, ‘God is at work darning the holes in our souls,’ ” Stone said. “We’re all hurt. … The whole community is feeling sad. But the service was never maudlin. It was a memorial, and then we celebrated the fact that God is stitching and mending us.”
Schoharie United Presbyterian Church marks another first this Christmas season: The church held a joint Christmas Eve service with Schoharie Reformed Church, another church in downtown Schoharie that suffered extensive flood damage. The two congregations gathered at the Carrot Barn, a store on Route 30 that sells fresh produce, local beef, dairy products and fresh-baked goods.
“We wanted to make it more of a community event,” said the Rev. Sherri Meyer-Veen, co-pastor at Schoharie Reformed Church.
For those affected by flooding, this Christmas has been more challenging than Christmases past.
But clergy say that the Christmas story, with its themes of rebirth and renewal, provides hope to those who are struggling, and that flood victims can relate to Mary and Joseph, who were traveling when circumstances forced them to spend a night in a manger, where Jesus was born. Like Mary and Joseph, many flood victims are displaced from their homes and face an uncertain future, they said.
“We’ve talked about being a people of hope,” said the Rev. Michael Tamorria, the interim pastor at St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Middleburgh. “People have been enormously stressed out by the flood damage.”
St. Mark’s was flooded by four feet of water, and 10 of the church’s families were displaced from their homes. At the beginning of December, the church was able to once again hold services in its sanctuary. Despite the damage, St. Mark’s has served as a resource for the community, providing space for organizations, such as the American Legion, that lost their buildings in the flood. It also served as a base for Project Hope, a Catholic Charities program that provides counseling to the community.
The Rev. Michael Hogan, who serves at St. Margaret of Cortona, a Catholic parish in Rotterdam Junction, said he’s addressed the flood and its aftermath often during the Christmas season.
“We’ve talked about how you live in the midst of chaos and fear, and what Christmas means when you’re in the midst of that,” Hogan said. “We’ve talked about Mary and Joseph being without a home and how it’s similar to what some of us are going through. We’ve talked about how in the worst of times you’re sometimes given a sign of hope and for us that sign is Christmas.”
“The people in Rotterdam Junction have been extraordinarily resilient,” Hogan said.
Meyer-Veen said the sanctuary at Schoharie Reformed Church was damaged in the flood and the damage has actually gotten worse since then. New structural issues have emerged and there have been issues with mold. But the church has held services every week since the flood.
Meyer-Veen said the Christmas story has a special resonance this year.
“We relate with a God who was displaced,” she said. “That was never something I had meditated on a great deal before. Now I see the scripture in a whole new light. I knew that God was a God of love, that God loves everyone, that God is concerned for the poor, for the outcast, that God always reaches out to us in the midst of chaos.” This year “the chaos and stress are at a higher level. Sometimes that helps us hear [the message] better.” She said she’s tried to emphasize “the fact that God is with us no matter what happens, that this is not the full story, and that we will get through this.”
Meyer-Veen said this Christmas season has been tough, and that “as for where we are as a church, it’s been all over the map.”
She said she gave a sermon on joy during December, and that she started out by telling people that she’s had a hard time being joyful this year. Then she explained that “joy is different from happiness. It’s not just a current state. It’s a deeper sense of knowing that God walks beside you.”
Since the flood, churches throughout the Capital Region have worked to assist and support members who suffered flood damage, as well as other churches.
The Rev. Steffen A. Zehrfuhs, pastor at Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church in Central Bridge, said seven families in his church were affected by flooding, and that the church gave them special gift baskets containing food and gift cards for the holidays. He said that the flood made it more difficult for the organizations that usually help out needy families during the Christmas season to do so.
Zehrfuhs’ church wasn’t damaged in the flood, but he’s seen the devastation first-hand.
“Every time I ride through Schoharie or Middleburgh, it’s really, really tough,” he said.
Only one family at Esperance-Sloansville United Methodist Church was hit by flooding, but the church has played a key role as the community has struggled to clean up and rebuild in the aftermath of the storm. One of the hardest hit areas in the region was Priddle Road in Esperance, where at least 20 houses were swept away by floodwaters.
The Rev. Alan Rhodes, the pastor at Esperance-Sloansville, said his church has hosted training programs for disaster case managers, and sponsored a community caring day that brought residents together after the flood. “Wherever people are hurting, we’re called to help,” he said. “In our particular case, we were blessed by being spared so we could help others.”
Esperance-Sloansville also hosted a Blue Christmas service.
At the service, “I said that this is a time of hope, a time to do something new,” Rhodes said. “Even though it might have been a bad year — you might have lost a loved one, you might have lost a job — there’s hope.”
After the flood, Schoharie United Presbyterian Church spent three weeks worshipping in a barn, then moved into the church’s Christian Education building, which is located behind the red brick church on Main Street.
“There are tremendous signs of hope,” Stone said, pointing to the grassroots organizations that have formed since the flood to rebuild the community. She said her apartment and its furnishings were provided by Delmar Presbyterian Church, who “adopted” her.
“The Wise Men brought their gifts to Jesus,” Stone said. “Think of all the gifts that have been brought to Schoharie.”