Churches in hard-hit Southwest Florida are providing sustaining strength in the lives of those plunged into chaos and grief.

FORT MYERS, Fla. — In the darkness and despair, there were glimmers of light and hope, even for Jane Compton, who lost her home and possessions A hurricane of Jan’s anger. As the storm approached last week, she and her husband took refuge in their Baptist church, huddling with congregants through the wind, rain and worry.

They prayed for the gusts to subside and for God to keep them out of harm’s way as the hurricane made landfall last Wednesday. The flood swept under the pews, driving the faithful to the pulpit and further testing their faith. The growing storm blew off the spire of the church, leaving a large gap in the roof. The parishioners shuddered.

“God, please protect us,” Compton prayed with her husband, Del.

She compared the flood to the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, saying they didn’t know when the water would stop rising. When that happened, there were hallelujahs.

Now that the storm has passed and its devastation abounds, churches throughout hard-hit Southwest Florida are providing sustaining strength in the lives of those plunged into chaos and grief. Heartache, disappointment, and uncertainty are now swirling in the sanctuaries amid sermons about perseverance and keeping the faith.

“We think it was a blessing in disguise,” said the Rev. Robert Kesten, the Comptons’ pastor at Southwest Baptist Church, a congregation of several hundred in one of the most devastated areas of Fort Myers.

Many of the nearly quarter-million Catholics in the Diocese of Venice, which covers 10 counties from south Tampa Bay to the Everglades that bore the brunt of the hurricane, are also being tested. Bishop Frank DeWayne visited as many as possible of the five dozen parishes and 15 schools of the diocese.

“A lot of people just wanted to talk about, ‘Why is there so much suffering?'” DeWayne said of the parishioners he met during weekend Mass celebrations at a church in the flooded North Port area and in the storm’s parish hall. damaged Sarasota church. “We must continue; we are a people of hope.”

Priests walked a fine line between holding Mass to ensure the comfort and safety of elderly parishioners in areas with widespread lack of running water and electricity and flooded roads. DeWayne said one rescued man kept asking about his wife, not realizing she had drowned in the storm.

Nearby mobile home parks where many of his parishioners lived were drowned around Kasten’s church. About a fourth of his congregation suffered severe damage to their homes, with many like the Comptons losing almost everything. The sanctuary of the church became a temporary place for almost a dozen new homeless people.

Most were coping well until tragedy struck.

“When they saw the pictures, they just burst into tears,” Kasten said.

“They were just shocked that you knew what happened. But they only praise the Lord, how he protected us, saved us,” he said.

Barbara Wasko, a retiree who now sleeps on a recliner at the shrine, said she believes the community will rebuild.

“We’ll make it,” she said. “We’ll make it.”

Hurricane Ian’s fury — packing winds of 150 miles per hour (241 kilometers per hour) and flooding — killed dozens of people and left countless others stranded in what for many communities was the worst disaster in generations.

Rhonda Mitchell, who lives near the Baptist church, said all she has left is her faith in God.

“We don’t know what He’s going to do,” she said as she spread things out to dry outside her mobile home as an empty U-Haul truck waited to be loaded.

“I just lost my whole life,” she said as she began to sob. “I’m still here, but I just lost everything I have. … I’m just trying to figure it out.”

Restoration work is already underway in severely damaged Catholic churches and schools. But DeWayne said his priority is to “meet people where they are” and make sure the Catholic community can help the overall relief effort.

This ranges from finding shelter for teachers whose homes have been leveled even as many schools reopen this week, to helping counselors for elderly neighbors. The diocese is working with Catholic Charities to set up distribution centers for donations as well as supplies provided by FEMA.

But many successful efforts are grassroots. When a group of nuns in small Vauchula, an inland town, lost power, they decided to simply clean out the freezers of meat and other perishables and invite the whole neighborhood over for a barbecue. With the fire burning, hundreds of people lined up and began adding what was in their own refrigerators, which were quickly heating up.

“We’re doing as good as we can,” DeWayne said. “I think we can only be instruments of the Lord.”

The Rev. Charles Cannon, pastor of St. Hilary’s Episcopal Church, preached on the temporality of the congregation’s losses. Although much had been lost, he said, all was not lost.

“People think they’ve lost everything, but you haven’t lost everything unless you’ve lost yourself and the people you love,” Cannon said after Sunday’s services, which were held outside amid the fallen boughs of once-stately oaks.

Cannon noted that the debris that makes the church grounds look like an ugly, unearthly place can be cleaned up.

“Most of the work has been to make people feel safe again,” he said, “almost everyone is without power.” All without water. Trying to make them feel comfortable again.”

Down the street, about 50 parishioners gathered at the Bethlehem Assembly of God ministry to share their struggles. They told how they had no electricity, no drinking water and in many cases were left with damaged houses.

“But God saved them,” said Victoria Araujo, a parishioner and occasional Sunday school teacher.

“Some people have lost a lot of things … We need to pray for people who have lost more than us,” said priest Ailton da Silva, whose congregation is mainly made up of immigrant families from Brazil.

The storm really tested the resilience of his community, he said, adding that “I think people will be thinking about faith, family and God.”

Five years ago, Hurricane Irma swept through the region, causing extensive damage to his church. The repair work was still going on when Ian hit. This time the church did much better.

After all, “it’s just a building,” da Silva said. “The church is us.”