MIDLAND, Mich. — Every pew in Holy Scripture Lutheran Church is puddled with water. Pages in hundreds of warped red hymnals blow with the wind, discarded outside the front entrance in the shadow of a tall steeple.
“I’d described the last two months prior to the flood as a nightmare,” said Pastor Paul Schneider. “This is a bad dream.”
He paused, overcome with emotion and restraining tears.
“This is very tough,” Schneider whispered.
Just days earlier, he wore hip waders to get into the house of worship.
Schneider, 73, started cleanup at 7 a.m. on Friday, as one of so many emptying houses, businesses, and churches in Midland and Sanford after two dams breached and floodwaters devoured the community this week, leaving thousands in shelters and a nation stunned.
Streets in this tight-knit company town are lined with bed frames, mattresses, living room chairs and couches, desks and appliances now reeking of polluted water and, in some cases, sewage. Road barriers block streets and caution tape is wrapped across bridges.
The air is filled with silence.
“It’s a disaster. Everything is destroyed,” Schneider said, his boots squishing into a soggy carpet that ran up the center aisle of the church on Friday. “We had water waist-deep all the way through the church. Pew pads were floating all over the place. Sloshing water all over the place. We’ll have to cut everything out and start over.”
Paul Krudy, 62, walked in and out for hours, carrying soggy boxes and trying to make sense of what to do next. He is among the many members who just helped renovate the 50-year-old church that saw floodwater this week swell past the pulpit to the altar.
“It really tears a hole in your heart,” he said. “The baptismal font … it crossed to the other side of the church, tipped over, and the actual baptismal bowl where water goes was filled with floodwater instead of holy water.”
Hundreds of church volunteers from all over Michigan and Ohio are expected to pour into Midland to help with the recovery in private homes, businesses and churches. A few stopped by, strangers, to check on the workers.
“Is the pastor inside?” asked Gwen Henrie, 49, who described herself with a smile as a Mount Pleasant housewife. “We’re just hoping to help.”
Her husband, Dr. Derrek Henrie, a regional official with Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, wanted to try and coordinate where the needs were greatest and how people might help. He had massive equipment delivered for weekend volunteers.
“This situation is just horrible. The flooding of the dam, the thing with COVID-19,” said Derrek Henrie, 52. “We anticipate two or three weeks of work with anywhere from 30 to 300 volunteers a day.”
People in the middle of the crisis can’t stop to reflect right now.
“I was supposed to be cutting the grass today,” said Krudy, a church elder and engineering consultant. “Instead, we’re emptying the church. And we’ve got to look at water damage behind the walls and wainscoting. “
Elegant Corinthian pillars line the aisle. Flowers remain on the altar with a Bible and a hymnal. A presence light, sometimes called an eternal candle, continues to flicker just past the pulpit. A candelabra is undisturbed. Embroidered silk cloths still hang gently along the altar rails. And the pipe organ in the balcony took on no water.
Pastor Schneider, who planned to guard the church with five sump pumps against a traditional threat of heavy rain, now watches the cleanup of the boiler room still under 3 feet of water. And the parsonage flooded, so he’s staying with his daughter.
Barbara Schneider has been fighting cancer for two years and recently had surgery with complications. They had to be rescued by boat even though their church does not sit on a lake.
Nathan Rivard, 15, looked around the music room that looked like gale winds had whipped through — like a hurricane.
“I’ve grown up here in this church since I was a little baby. And I know it won’t be the same ever again,” he said quietly. “There are pianos and chairs everywhere. All the hymnals that we used to sing out of are covered all over the floor. There’s puddles of water in places. You can tell there’s mud in places.”
Mark Krudy, 17, who lives about 8 miles north of his church, also helped a nearby family strip their home of ruined hardwood floors and carpets.
Receding waters reveal the depth of loss and sometimes humor.
“I do not normally live on a lake. I have a small pond on part of my property,” he said. “But my 4 acres of land turned into a lake on Monday. … We found three dead catfish in my driveway.”
Krudy, who is still deciding whether to study economics at Hope College or the University of Michigan, indicated he’ll be spending many days helping at church in the coming months.
Since before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered families to shelter in place as part of the pandemic response strategy, Schneider said he was already practicing social distancing. He has been live-streaming Sunday services and made creative attempts, after 40 years at the church, to keep his 80 families connected and inspired. He sent them devotions by email.
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“We have been obedient to the governor,” Schneider said. “At this point in time, we were planning to live- stream until the end of May. And then if she would open up, we’d begin open service first Sunday in June.”
Then he takes a minute to reflect on the Old Testament and the story of Job, who lost his 10 children but kept his faith. And he notes that the church has no flood insurance. Members hope for a new beginning. Water is a symbol of renewal and hope in the Christian faith.
Barbara Schneider, 71, said late Friday, “Church is about the people, not the building. At the same time, this is devastating. We love our building because it’s where we gather together.”
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