Accompanying the National Guard and local first responders, Jeff Bruno, a long-time freelance photographer for The Monitor, writes of his experience on hard-hit Long Beach Island just hours after Hurricane Sandy ripped through New Jersey. Jeff, shown left, is a member of St. Mary Parish, Barnegat, and active in the parish’s youth ministry.
Being a photojournalist, I have the opportunity to see, and speak with, many people who are inside events of all kinds, from the ordinary to the historic, the celebratory to the tragic. Over the years, I have found it remarkable that it often takes a disaster for people to show their true greatness.
When the waters are calm we might phone in a Hail Mary from time to time, but when it all falls apart, and life comes undone, our attitude changes.
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We do more. We pray more. We become. We find ways to give of ourselves that we never dreamed possible, even to the extreme of sacrificing our lives.
Perhaps it is simply that greatness requires pain and sacrifice, and the more we sacrifice the greater we become. Maybe it’s something else. I don't pretend to know the answer. But it does seem that it often takes a time of great adversity to turn us into the people we were created to be.
Sandy, with her devastating impact on the lives of millions, was no exception to the “disaster + sacrifice=greatness” equation.
During the past two weeks, I witnessed countless acts of heroism and self sacrifice by people who, when faced with adversity, rose to the occasion. There were people opening their homes to those displaced, collecting and donating clothing and goods, offering a compassionate and caring shoulder for those who were scared and grieving. As the rain came down, and the winds and flood waters swept through our communities, people rose up to become the neighbors they were truly capable of being.
And there were moments of insight.
I had been on Long Beach Island touring the conditions of the northern half with members of the Barnegat Light Fire and Rescue Company, seeing and experiencing both horror and heroism brought forth from the ravages of the storm. And at the end of the day, after trudging around in knee deep sandy mud and viewing houses ripped from their pilings and breathing air filled with natural gas escaping from broken meters, I returned to the mainland.
There I stopped to join a group of law enforcement officers, often viewed as the opposition, detouring traffic away from the Island, and informing property owners they wouldn't be able to return. Expecting this situation would simple irritate the officers, I was not prepared when one turned to me, choked up, voice cracking and said, "It breaks my heart to have to tell these people that they can't return to their homes." This was not opposition. This was a man with feelings and compassion doing a job most would never ask to do.
The next day I was embedded with a National Guard Unit providing support to the Long Beach Township Police Department in conducting a damage assessment of the hardest hit areas. One of the guardsman riding with me was a single mother of two, a student who also worked to support her family. In spite of the complexities of her life, her character and caring nature made it possible for her to volunteer for the mission to help those who were suffering.
So where is the face of the Church in all of this? Well, it's right where it should be. It's in veteran Detective Sergeant Steven Melega, who was baptized, married and raised his children in a church near the epicenter of the storm, devoting everything he has to keeping the island safe.
It's in the volunteers from Saint Francis of Assisi Parish on Long Beach Island in the Outreach Center at the National Guard Command, who aid and comfort seniors who have lost everything they've worked for all their lives. It's in the people manning the burners at St. Pius the X Parish, Forked River, providing clothes, supplies and hot meals all day long. It's where the Church in her finest hour shines the brightest – in her people.
The reservoir of greatness in each one of us is deeper than we can ever know.
Sandy may, in fact, have been the “perfect storm,” bringing cataclysmic destruction and suffering, but when the faithful step up in their communities, and for every person stricken by tragedy hundreds show up to help, what you have is people living up to the greatness God instilled in them.
What you have is a moment of Grace.
Jeff Bruno is a long-time freelance photographer supporting the work of The Monitor, and a member of St. Mary Parish, Barnegat.[[In-content Ad]]