Richard and Curlean Berry have been homesick since the day they had to evacuate their home and farm in Abaco, North Bahamas, when Hurricane Dorian leveled the central part of the island in early September 2019. They had lived for more than 27 years in Marsh Harbour after a rural paving job came about in the 1990s for Richard, a road engineer and builder. Curlean had her own crafts souvenir business that was thriving. When they moved to Abaco, they had decided to go as self-supporting missionaries to grow the church membership there. They were instrumental in pioneering two churches in South Abaco and strengthening the church in Marsh Harbour as well.
Abaco is home to them — what’s left of it. The Berrys are among hundreds of church members who had to escape Abaco and relocate to different islands, many to Nassau, Bahamas. “We have been living with our daughter [in Nassau] since September and really have nothing much to return to,” Curlean said.
“Everything was destroyed,” they both said, almost in unison.
Richard has been back to visit Abaco and stays for a few days, trying to find a tractor to get his coconut farm going. But the clean-up on the island will take longer than just a few more months. In the meantime, the displacement has taken a toll.
“I went into depression and took myself to the psychiatrist,” Curlean said. Therapy and medication have helped her deal with depression, and she's praying and trying to cope with being uprooted from her home, from the life she lived before Dorian. Curlean said she is waiting for results on a biopsy from a mass that doctors found in her breast. She shared the news with many people who came to the New Providence Adventist church in Nassau to hear some lectures on psychological trauma on January 8, 2020.
The lectures have been organized through a collaborative effort with the church in the Atlantic Caribbean Union, the Inter-American Division, and professionals from Loma Linda University.
“I wake up in the middle of the night, and the story of the people comes back to my mind,” said Peter Kerr, president of the Adventist Church in the Atlantic Caribbean Union, which oversees the work in the Bahamas, Cayman Islands, and Turks and Caicos. “The sights and sounds from their stories still haunt me. There are folks still looking for their loved ones, still waiting to have closure,” he said.
Kerr was addressing a group of more than 150 from Adventist churches and the community who wished to gain some insight into how to cope with their new lives. “We think of a great God even in the midst of the storm,” Kerr said. “We will rise from the ashes, and we will see flowers bloom, for we are beginning to see the sunlight. But it's going to take some time.”
After basic needs were taken care of for many church members through numerous relief efforts and donations, it was time to provide some psychological intervention in the form of lectures for the long-term process of recovery, Kerr explained.
Pharez D. Rolle, an assistant professor of psychiatry and adult psychiatry at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California, United States, spoke on the long-term effects of trauma.
“Trauma comes in a lot of different forms,” Rolle said. “One of the biggest is the loss of family, friends, loss of a way of life, loss of a job. However, many traumas are hidden.”
It’s important you find a good therapist and build a team of support around you, Rolle said. “Overcoming trauma is not a solo process; it takes a whole community.” Rolle pointed to being emotionally prepared to help someone with trauma and highlighted the importance of self-care before helping someone else and using a team approach in helping someone with trauma.
Carlos Fayard, associate professor of psychiatry at Loma Linda University as well as assistant director for mental health affairs for the Adventist world church, shared that “the key message is that there is hope.”
“Disaster shakes everything, including our faith, and many times we do not anticipate that,” Fayard said. “It’s important you hold on to your faith, but you do what you need to get better — go see a therapist.”
Restoring meaning has to do with understanding that everyone needs each other, having the courage to accept what happened, and continuing to trust in God. “If you are dealing with emotions, you can deal with them, even if you cannot change what was lost. You can change yourself. We have to affirm what is still here and what is meaningful.”
One of the most horrible things in trauma is feeling alone, Fayard said. “You can face anything if someone is with you. You need a tangible presence with the Lord.”
It’s about serving something bigger than yourself, he explained. “Step out, reach out. Open your heart so others can open up to you,” he said.
Fayard led group sessions during his lecture segment, and together with Rolle, answered questions from the dozens gathered.
For the Berrys, hope keeps them focused on clinging to God, seeing a psychiatrist, and being part of the evangelistic campaign at the Grandstone Adventist church in Nassau, which starts at the end of January.
Wilson Isnord nods and takes notes during the lectures at New Providence. He sits next to his wife, with the escape from their home during the hurricane still fresh in their minds. He and their children, ages 19 and 15, relocated to Nassau after the storm. Isnord lost his house, and two of the five churches of which he was district pastor in Abaco were destroyed. All of his church members relocated. Hope is all he’s been able to share from the time they left Abaco. He ministers to many of his former members in shelters in Nassau, months later. He does all he can to point to relief efforts and assistance available to those most in need.
Since November 2019, Isnord has been assigned a French-speaking church in Nassau, where he sees some of the church members from Abaco.
“It has been very hard,” Isnord said. He feels powerless to help all of those whom he used to serve and are now scattered, are not home, are dealing with relocation, and thinking of what the future holds. “The human part of me still feels the pain, the loss now. And then when I think of what happened, it places me in a position to strengthen my relationship with Jesus even more now, as many come with their challenges. And I have to find the strength to take them where they are and where they ought to be, the hope they can find in Jesus Christ,” he said.
Isnord added that he knows his ministry will never be the same after the disaster. “The storm teaches how to rely and depend on God, because when I was in my house and the windows blew off, and the wind came inside the house, surrounded by water, all that mattered to me was God and my family. I had only God to lean on.”
Isnord is thankful he can understand better the trauma he and his members from Abaco have been going through and helps others at the Francophone Adventist church. He dreams of returning to Abaco and seeing both churches in Marsh Harbour rebuilt. In the meantime, he continues to minister and share hope to all still adjusting to life after Hurricane Dorian.
Rolle and Fayard also spoke to dozens at the Freeport Adventist church in Grand Bahama, January 9-11.
Kerr said that as soon as the government allows for the reconstruction of churches, the plan is to rebuild in Marsh Harbour. “We are not sure if these will be rebuilt at the same site or whether the government will allocate land, but we will move forward,” he said.
While basic relief and feeding programs have ended, 10 Seventh-day Adventist members are still staying at government shelters across Nassau but will be relocated by the end of the month, Kerr said. In addition, collaboration with Loma Linda University’s psychological trauma team will continue throughout the year, he explained.
Plans are to start rebuilding some homes with government-donated materials and other donations with a group of 20 builders from Trinidad, who are being sent by the Caribbean Union to assist in the process, Kerr said.