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'We're comforting people'

Not many people would be able to find anything positive about their church being destroyed.

BY HEATHER MOYER | LAKE WORTH, Fla. | November 2, 2005

"We may not have a church building - but the church is really within each of us."

—Rev. Steve Wipperman

Not many people would be able to find anything positive about their church being destroyed, but the Rev. Steve Wipperman did.

When Wipperman arrived at the pile of rubble that was once the sanctuary of Our Savior Lutheran Church, he saw one large object rising out of Hurricane Wilma's destruction: the church pulpit.

"I took it to mean that God's word was still with us - that it's our solace in our time of need," said Wipperman.

The solace was needed for the church's congregation, many of whom arrived at the pile of rubble only hours after Hurricane Wilma had moved on last week. Many cried, Wipperman said, and many helped sift through the debris to salvage what they could.

Now piles of shards from the church's numerous stained glass windows line the concrete slab where the sanctuary once stood. Wipperman took a piece for himself to remember the space, as did many of the church members. The grief among the church members is easing but has not gone away yet.

"We're doing our best to return to normal as best we can," explained Wipperman. "We're comforting people and providing a lot of grief and crisis counseling."

Lake Worth is a coastal community 10 miles south of West Palm Beach - an area pummeled by Hurricane Wilma.

Wipperman said fortunately, most church members did not suffer too much damage to their homes but downed phone lines are making the contact with all the members more difficult. The church has a definite presence in the community, providing a school for kids aged three to third grade and an English language program for the large Guatemalan population in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Another fortunate note was that Hurricane Wilma did not severely damage the school building or the other church facilities on site. The congregation is still able to meet in school's gymnasium.

Wipperman is pointing out the positive to his congregation, noting that "out of disasters, good things happen." One of those good things is the outpouring of support from other local churches. Even those that suffered some damage themselves offered space for church services or supplies, he said. Wipperman added that he even appeared on some national news shows right after the hurricane, and that prompted calls of support from all over the country.

Even Wipperman's church friends from up in Minnesota - Wipperman only started at the Lake Worth church in August - said they are adopting Our Savior Lutheran Church to help them get through the recovery. With his positive attitude, Wipperman is appreciating their help and handling the jokes about his moving to Florida. "I might as well see Florida at its worst so I can appreciate it at its best," he laughed. Some of that best, he quickly added, is just how much support he's receiving from around the U.S.

Members of Our Savior are moving through their grief. Lee Steele said the initial shock has worn off and she is also trying to focus on the positive.

"I was dumbfounded when I first saw (the damage) - I couldn't even begin to tell how I felt then," said Steele, Our Savior's administrative assistant. "This is some place where you spend your days, and now it's just cement. Yet I'm so proud of our congregation and how they've pulled together."

A church member for five years but a local resident for more than 20, Steele said Wilma was the worst hurricane she has ever seen. Our Savior had suffered minor damage from last year's hurricanes, but Steele noted that that damage at least seemed manageable.

Sandy Capton, a church member and administrator of Our Savior's school, is shocked by the damage as well. A member of the church since 1969, Capton was confirmed and married in the sanctuary. She's now checking in on the schoolkids and their families.

"Most are okay, and many are more concerned with how we are," said Capton. "Even the kids have stopped by to make sure we're okay and to see if anyone was hurt."

Capton added that crisis counselors were just in the school several weeks ago to help the kids cope with disaster, a move she's glad was made before Wilma hit. The teachers had already gathered before Wilma to check in and prepare what they would say to kids once school resumed.

The positive attitude Wipperman is instilling in his congregation is evident in Capton. "We will still continue to provide quality education," she said. "And the church will go on, there's no doubt or question in that. This is an exciting time for us. We may not have a church building - but the church is really within each of us."

Some of the next steps for Our Savior Lutheran Church are clear. Wipperman said the church is helping refer community members to agencies that can assist them. "We want the community to know that we're here if they need us and we're open to them," he explained.

As far as rebuilding goes, Wipperman said he was already beginning a visioning process for the congregation by asking them what they thought the church's mission was even before Wilma. The storm obviously pushed that goal more into the forefront, he laughed.

"Right now we're not rushing into rebuilding," said Wipperman. "We want to focus on what God's mission is for this place and what it might look like."

What Wipperman and the congregation do know is that Our Savior Lutheran Church is not going anywhere, that they will remain a strong presence within the city.

"Faith and hope are alive in Lake Worth," said Wipperman.

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