How Nebraskans Are Reconciling Faith and Flooding

People view the rising waters from the Platte and Missouri rivers, which flooded areas of Plattsmouth, Neb., on March 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

In the days following major midwestern floods this spring, people of faith prayed for their neighbors and got busy lending a hand.

They also turned to their beliefs to make sense of a disaster that washed away homes and roads, leaving more than a billion dollars of damage in its wake.

Mark Mathewson, theologian-in-residence at Lincoln Berean Church in Lincoln, Neb., said he has focused more on how to respond to the floods than on why the floods occurred.

Barring direct revelation from God as to why things like devastating floods happen, he said, some Christians would say “we simply don’t know.”

Volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse remove ruined
insulation from the crawl space under Wilbur Rayl’s
home in Fremont, Neb. on March 28, 2019. RNS photo
by Emily McFarlan Miller

Three-quarters of Nebraskans are Christian, almost evenly divided among evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics, according to the Pew Research Center’s most recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.

Mathewson pointed to the biblical figure of Job, who lost everything he had in a series of disasters.

“We can speculate all we want, but then in the end we simply have to trust that God’s ways are the best ways,” Mathewson said. “He knows what he’s doing, even when we don’t understand why.”

Regardless of the reason God would allow such a disaster to happen, the theologian said, God calls Christians to respond, to help others and to “show them the love of Jesus” in the midst of it.

That’s what Lincoln Berean is doing.

The church is partnering with Samaritan’s Purse to clean out flood-damaged homes and remove debris in Fremont, Neb., a hard-hit area about 50 miles north of the city. The church’s splashy website features a link titled “Nebraska Flood Relief” on its homepage, advertising twice-weekly work days with the evangelical disaster relief organization, and Mathewson said it also has shared ways members can donate money to recovery efforts if they are unable to volunteer their time.

For members of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, the floods came at a sacred time, when the Ponca people celebrate the arrival of spring and the new year with the first thunderclap.

Some took to Facebook to celebrate: “First thunder!”

Dwight Howe, cultural director of the Ponca Tribe of
Nebraska. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Some gathered quietly or said quick prayers of thanks to Wakonda, or God, that winter was ending and the earth was coming back to life, according to Dwight Howe, culture director for the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska.

The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska is one of four federally recognized tribes with headquarters in the state of Nebraska, according to Howe. About a third of Ponca members live in Nebraska — many of them in service areas affected by the flooding.

“It’s a holy time. It’s a powerful time. And this on top of it just sort of made it even almost supernatural,” he said.

That sacredness was underscored last month when, not long after the first thunder of the season, heavy rains fell and snow melted across the Midwest. Something called a “bomb cyclone” struck and dams broke, washing away bridges and buildings and hurtling large ice chunks into farmers’ fields near Niobrara, Neb., the ancestral homeland of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska.

One day a road was there, he said. The next it was gone.

“Only God can do that,” Howe said.

The culture director acknowledged that the flood caused a great deal of damage. But he said he tried to see it as a blessing.

“We get so wrapped up that we fail to see,” he said. “When something like this happens, it kind of clears our heads for a minute. It takes the blinders off, and we can see something sacred happened.”

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SOURCE: Religion News Service