PANAMA CITY, Florida — Few things at Sunday’s early morning sacrament services for Latter-day Saints here could aptly be called “normal.”
For starters, there was a gaping hole in the ceiling above one side of the Panama City Stake Center podium, the handiwork of Hurricane Michael. The chapel’s water-damaged carpet had been pulled from the floor days earlier. Resting on the grass outside was the meetinghouse steeple, toppled by the dreadful winds. And hundreds of congregants — including many who arrived hours and even days earlier from several states — were wearing yellow T-shirts and jeans instead of white shirts, dark suits and ties or dresses.
But don’t be mistaken. The Latter-day Saints who gathered just as the sun was rising on devastated Panama City were observing the Sabbath in pure form.
On a Sunday defined by service relief projects across several Florida and North Carolina communities, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, reminded the volunteers that a Sunday spent serving pleases the Lord on His day.
This post-hurricane Sunday, he said, again offers “an opportunity to pause from your normal labors and serve the Lord.”
In his sacrament meeting remarks, President Oaks recalled a Sabbath Day well over a century ago when Brigham Young dispatched able-bodied young men to the plains of Wyoming to rescue a handcart company trapped by snow and freezing cold.
“In a way, you're doing the same thing,” he said. “You are Saints of the Lord setting out to serve your brothers and sisters from a disaster that has overtaken them.”
With his wife, Sister Kristen Oaks, at his side, President Oaks spent much of the day Sunday touring command centers, offering encouragement and meeting with local civic leaders even while marveling at the damage wrought by Michael.
Earlier in the week, President and Sister Oaks and several other Church leaders visited with Latter-day Saints in the Carolinas who are still feeling the effects of Hurricane Florence.
Visiting devastated Panama City and then witnessing the response of Helping Hands volunteers from across the country stirred a mixture of emotions in the veteran priesthood leader.
“I am astonished at the extent of destruction and the magnitude of what has arrived here to relieve suffering,” he told the Church News.
Outlast the awful winds
Meanwhile to the north, Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Susan Bednar, pulled on yellow Helping Hands vests and visited relief crews serving in the Florida city of Marianna. Driving through the town is a surreal attack on the senses. The lush pines that define the community remain, but in horizontal forms. Many of the city’s once towering trees are now strewn across yards and streets.
But it’s easy to envision the trees of Marianna making a comeback. And so will the people, said Elder Bednar. Families here enjoy a resilience that comes from the gospel’s perspective.
“It’s a blessing to see Latter-day Saints exercising their faith in the Lord.”
The Bednars won’t deny a soft spot for the South. They raised their children in Arkansas. They know first-hand the hospitality and neighborliness that define those who call this region of the country home.
When the Bednars — along with Elder Shayne M. Bowen, a General Authority Seventy, and his wife, Sister Lynette Bowen — stopped by Church-sponsored work sites in Marianna on Sunday, volunteers switched off their chainsaws and set down their tools to spend a few minutes with their special visitors. Even while working to exhaustion, the Church of Jesus Christ members offered broad smiles and handshakes.
“We are never surprised to see Latter-day Saints respond this way,” said Elder Bednar. “We are even less surprised to see Latter-day Saints in the South respond this way. This is who and what they are.”
'Overwhelmed' by goodness
Sister Jean B. Bingham, the Relief Society general president, was unnerved when Sunday’s first light revealed Michael’s vicious wrath in Panama City. How, she wondered, will the people ever recover?
She received an answer minutes later when she saw armies of men and women who traveled near and far to join the yellow-clad volunteers in Panama City and across Florida and the Carolinas.
Singing the hymn “Because I Have Been Given Much” with a building full of Helping Hands workers adds new layers to a song of gratitude and service, she said in her sacrament meeting remarks.
Despite being staggered by her view of post-hurricane Panama City, “you are the most overwhelming site I’ve seen this morning,” she told the congregation.
Meanwhile, in a sacrament meeting late Sunday morning at the nearby Callaway meetinghouse, Bishop W. Christopher Waddell, second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, reminded volunteers they act as the Lord’s agent each time they fulfill a work order for a person in need.
“You are the Savior’s hands,” he said. “You are doing what He would do if He were here.”
Thanks perhaps to their Helping Hands “uniform,” it’s easy to forget that each person donning the yellow T-shirt is an individual making unique sacrifices to serve others. But unifying joy, they say again and again, is found in the work.
James McKevr of the Cocoa Florida Stake said making the six-hour drive from his home to spend a free weekend serving strangers was an easy decision. “There are a lot of people that need help,” he said matter-of-factly.
His friend, Gene Terkoski, said service is a cyclical blessing. On Sunday, he was helping people impacted by Hurricane Michael. This time next year, “maybe I’ll be the one in need of help,” he mused.
Georgia resident Daniel Wemberly has all the “tools” to become a Helping Hands All-Star: A yellow T-shirt. A willing heart. And lastly, an orange tractor.
When he learned people in Marianna were in desperate need of tree removal, he loaded his tractor on its trailer and headed to Florida. He spent much of the day Sunday clearing huge loads of fallen trees. He thinks of the people who will enjoy a moment’s peace knowing others care enough to visit their yards “and help them clean up.”
Perhaps the Helping Hands natural spirit was best captured Sunday when a visitor from Utah discovered a metal shard buried deep into the tire of his rental car. When the Utahn asked for a helping hand, Alabama resident Wade Kriser jumped into action. After mustering a group of willing youngsters, Kriser and his makeshift crew answered an unorthodox “work order.” But they were anxious to serve, laughing together while loosening lug nuts and hefting the spare tire. Soon several adults wandered over, offering their own practical expertise and enthusiasm.
Within minutes, the visitor was driving away and giving humble thanks for service-driven strangers who treated him like one of their own.