Thanksgiving has deepened meaning for Mormons in St. Thomas who survived Hurricane Irma

ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands

Like legions of other Americans, Steven Richards headed to the market a couple of days before Thanksgiving in hopes of finding that perfect holiday turkey.

There’s little else that will be traditional over the holidays for Richards, his islander neighbors, or his friends in the Mormon branch over which he presides.

“I hope I can find a turkey,” he told the Church News as he made his way to the grocery story. “But if not, I’ll find something else for Thanksgiving.”

That “come-what-may” attitude has helped sustain President Richards and the 20 or so Latter-day Saints who have remained in St. Thomas after the Caribbean island was ravaged by Hurricane Irma more than two months ago.

Puerto Rico’s painful recovery from Hurricane Maria snags most of the day’s headlines. But for residents of St. Thomas and other regions of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Irma remains, well, a four-letter word.

Counted among those severely affected by Irma were several Mormons. Two members of the St. Thomas Branch lost their residences. One man’s home was destroyed. The other man, who lived on a sailboat, could not save his nautical abode.

President Richards says he counts himself among the lucky residents of the island. His home escaped significant damage. But make no mistake; Hurricane Irma has redefined his “new normal.”

His home is still without electrical power, so he fires up a gas-powered generator for a few hours each day.

“It’s just enough to keep the fridge cool.”

But living without reliable electricity is far easier than living without his family, admitted President Richards. His wife, Kim, and their three children that were still living at home have relocated to Salt Lake City during the island’s recovery so the kids can go to school.

“Spending Thanksgiving without my wife and kids is going to be different,” he said softly.

But he’s quick to add he won’t be spending the holiday alone. Some folks from the branch will be joining him for Thanksgiving, “and we’ll have a nice meal.”

Since Hurricane Irma, President Richard’s home has doubled as a shelter for several displaced members — and as the island’s unofficial Church headquarters.

The branch meetinghouse suffered significant roof and interior water damage during the storm. It’s closed until repairs are made. So each Sunday, about 20 branch members squeeze into President Richard’s home for Sabbath meetings.

The branch first meets together for sacrament meeting. Then, for the second hour, the Primary children remain in the front room while the adults move outside to the porch for Sunday School lessons.

As with Puerto Rico, the recovery effort in St. Thomas is a slow process. Power lines and poles remain strewn across some regions of the island. And blue tarp stretched across tattered roofs remains a common sight.

“But things are improving,” said President Richards. “Stores are reopening, and the leaves are returning to the trees.”

And on this unusual Thanksgiving, the island’s presiding Mormon authority insists he has much to be thankful for.

“I’m thankful for my life. I’m thankful for my safety. And I’m thankful my family is okay.”

A few days after Hurricane Irma raged across the Caribbean, President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency visited with members of the St. Thomas Branch in their storm-damaged meetinghouse.

President Richards said he and others from the St. Thomas Branch will think back on President Eyring’s words as they sit down together Thursday and enjoy Thanksgiving. They’re grateful for his counsel shared at a moment of great difficulty. He promised them they would be strengthened if they chose to remain faithful.

“I remember President Eyring speaking to those of us who would be separated from our families,” he said. “He said, ‘Just know that Heavenly Father has you in mind and you are exactly where you need to be.’ ”

Editor’s note: President Richards enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner with several fellow members. “I did find a nice turkey,” he reported.

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