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Faith-filled Response to Historic Flood

May 4, 2022
Photo: Jeremy Vaandrager

This is a story about resilience, faith, and hope after a devastating flood hit southern British Columbia, including the community of Abbotsford, in mid-November 2021. Given today’s unprecedented weather events, this story also shows how people at Gateway Community CRC in Abbotsford, B.C., as well as other churches and organizations, banded together and have continued to meet a range of needs resulting from one of the most catastrophic floods in Canada’s history.

In a sermon on the Sunday after the devastating flood, Rev. Justin Carruthers, pastor of Gateway Community CRC, preached about the necessity of experiencing grief in the wake of this tragedy.

“More than 60 of our families have been affected by this flood,” said Carruthers. “We’re all grieving today. We are here looking for hope in a hopeless world.”

However, said the pastor, as Christians, we know there is always hope, and yet it might be hard to find – at least for a time – while waters rage and cause widespread destruction to homes and farms.

“This week,” he said, “I’ve talked to many farmers who are saying, ‘Justin, I won’t cry because [if  I do,] I won’t stop.’ But we must share our grief. We must lean in and go to God with our grief. There is comfort under the shadow of God’s wing.”

Hitting the Pacific Northwest in mid-November 2021 and causing a state of emergency in many communities such as Abbotsford, a series of floods resulted from an unusual atmospheric event that brought heavy rains to parts of southern British Columbia and the northwestern United States. Especially hard hit was the Sumas Prairie in the Abbotsford area, where more than 600,000 animals died in the flooding.

At one point, Abbotsford feared the waters would overwhelm an important pumping station and force the evacuation of all 160,000 residents. But that didn’t happen because many people pitched in to build a wall of sandbags to protect the station.

Still, people suffered unprecedented losses as the waters rose and swept into their lives.

“It will be painful as we grieve,” preached Carruthers. “But don’t let your grief make you hard and inhuman and bleak. . . . Already I have seen the love between you, how you have cared for your neighbors by helping, praying, and making meals.”

“Praise Jesus – in moments of tragedy and hopelessness, you are doing this. . . . We are realizing that when you are on shaky ground, God will meet you there.”

Enriched and stabilized by their faith, members of Gateway did not let grief and loss get the best of them. They prayed hard and got busy.

Following the words of their pastor, several Gateway members were able to use their grief – and faith in God – as motivation to become part of a remarkable flood-relief effort that has taken on significant challenges in the face of this disaster. In the Abbotsford area alone, it is estimated that it will cost as much as $1 billion (U.S.) to repair the damage – and rebuilding will take a long time.

Water washed out roads and bridges and filled farm fields. Homes were destroyed. Livelihoods were wiped out in a few moments. Thousands of people experienced desperate needs that Gateway, soon joined by others, sought to fill.

“This is a story of a shared partnership. It is all about people working together,” said Carruthers in a recent interview. “From the early days after the flood, we tried to infuse hope into everything we did as we tried to meet tangible needs in the name of Jesus.”

Soon after the disaster, Gateway began providing and delivering meals to people in need, found places for displaced people to stay, and gathered work crews to go out and clean up and salvage flooded farms.

“Soon, many other CRCs in the area were helping out, as well as World Renew and Diaconal Ministries Canada,” said Carruthers. “We were helped by so many humble and generous givers. All of this inspired us to cling to the hope we have in our sovereign God.”

In response to the flood, Gateway has spearheaded a relief effort that includes the Crisis Response Centre, which works with local agencies to provide counseling, support services, meals, and household goods to people in need.

In addition, Gateway played an important role in forming the Abbotsford Disaster Response Coalition, a group of local churches that have worked to identify and meet the needs or gaps not covered by other agencies and organizations.

World Renew granted $100,000 to the Coalition as well as a grant of $45,000 to help them hire a part-time coordinator. World Renew also forwarded to the Coalition all additional funds that had been donated for the flood response.

Gateway and other churches, said Carruthers, are doing the work as followers of God, “who made us for a time such as this. . . . This is our neighborhood. . . . God will use us to bring about his kingdom's purposes through our witness and actions.”

Following the flood, Marcel deRegt, one of three pastors who serve Gateway CRC, told The Banner of a gathering he helped to put together at Cornerstone CRC in Chilliwack, B.C., on the Sunday after the disaster. As they met, people had a chance to talk about their experiences.

“The stories were unreal – about people losing their homes, all their kids’ toys and their furniture and more,” he said. “They were waiting to go and see their homes or what was left of their farms and their livestock. The emotions were real and raw. Words can't express the pain.”

Even six months after the disaster left thousands of acres of farmland under water and created a host of needs across the region, Keith Van Delft has sharp memories of the event and its aftermath.

Early on, Van Delft, owner of a food-processing service company and a member of Gateway, helped to coordinate the delivery of hundreds of boxes or bulk bags of food and supplies directly to flood-zone farms, churches, businesses, and homes that became centers of support to residents affected by the flood.

“I also got into a weekly rhythm with Milt Walker, who worked at our church [and now serves as the Abbotsford Disaster Response Program Coordinator]sending people food that they could use for preparing meals or handing out directly to anyone who came through the church doors.”

In addition, Van Delft said, he volunteered in the flood zone, working on emergency support, cleaning up homes and barns.

“We started getting into the first barns where the water had just receded, and we were scraping out stalls and laying fresh sawdust down and moving animals back in,” he recalled in an email message.

To start, he traveled into the flood zone alone, he said. But soon he was filling his truck – and then a second truck – with several people to help with the work. Although they did the best they could to help in the clean up, it was very hard to keep up, since there were so many needs.

“It was [similar to] the kind of chaos I'm often called on to find solutions for in my career. So, leaning on that experience, I called an emergency meeting on the night of the 21st with about 10 leaders in our church and community to come up with a more efficient and effective way to respond to our community’s needs,” he said.

“Out of this meeting we established an emergency call-out network, positioning a point person for each day of the week and an alternate for each point person to rely on. These became known as the day managers,” he added.

The list of volunteers quickly grew to include a diverse group of people from many different churches. From there, friends, colleagues, and family members also joined in.

“I found that some church groups preferred to take ownership of a job under their own umbrella. Sometimes a bigger job would come in, and we could set that whole team on it. Others were more than willing to work alongside ‘whomever, whenever’ as part of a team. It was not uncommon to have three, four, or five different faith or ethnic backgrounds working on a given property.”

It often happened, he said, that a neighbor would help another neighbor, create a small team of volunteers, and soon have about a dozen people working together, and then they’d have moments to share food and coffee together while getting to know each other.

“That continued for weeks, and the generosity, tears, and efforts of all parties involved was such a humbling experience,” he said.

Looking back at those challenging but life-changing events, he said, he can see that his faith in God and in others has grown.

“The tremendous response from the city's church and business communities and the many various volunteer groups jumping in to do whatever they could to lighten the load of our neighbors has been nothing short of an encouraging and uplifting experience,” he said.