This past weekend my wife Holly and I had the honor of spending three days at an amazing church in the city of Marathon, located in the heart of the Florida Keys. We were at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church offering a variety of wellness programs, but in the end we received as much inspiration as any that we may have been able to give. More about that in a moment, but first a few words about the Florida Keys.
The Keys have an incredibly vulnerable and unique ecosystem. The narrowness of the land masses and their position between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean make the Keys, the 100 mile stretch of islands off the southern coast of Florida, indefensible when it comes to storms. Hurricanes are a well known part of the history of this area, with some having packed wind speeds of 200 mph, causing thousands of fatalities over the years. These life-threatening storms are never far from Floridians’ minds in the summer and fall when hurricanes are more common.
The beautiful coral reefs that surround the Keys draw hundreds of thousands of divers, snorkelers, and fishermen from around the world, but these reefs are as fragile and vulnerable as the land they surround. Careless boaters that run aground on the coral reefs, as well as changes in water temperature and quality are causing widespread damage to these reefs. The native fish population is as exotic as it is vulnerable to pressure from over-fishing and pollution. None of these challenges are too daunting though for the people who make their home in the Keys. These locals, known as “Conchs,” are admired for their adventurous spirits, for living in a place where life is both incredibly beautiful and incredibly vulnerable and ever changing.
In this midst of this place of beauty sits St. Columba’s Episcopal Church. Ten years ago this church was close to closing, but since then, under the leadership of the Rev. Debra Andrew Maconaughey, along with many devoted lay leaders, the church has flourished and nearly tripled in size. Just as importantly, the church has at the same time, become a real center of wellness for the wider community.
Several years ago St. Columba’s courageously bought a house that came up for sale right next door to the church. They gradually turned the house into an after school and summer camp center known as the Hammock House. There they provide an incredible array of programs that serve the emotional, educational, physical, and spiritual needs of children who are living in challenging home situations (the picture at the top of this column is from our visit with some of the children at the Hammock House).
The church also was instrumental in starting Independence Cay, a non-profit that serves people in need of transitional housing. The church recently opened and now operates two different second-hand stores in Marathon that raises tens of thousands of dollars for these outreach ministries.
In addition, the people of St. Columba’s are the founders of Celtic Fest, a yearly Irish festival that just last month brought 7,000 visitors to Marathon for a weekend of Irish music and fun. Add to this, their annual Bluegrass BBQ benefit which sells out every year, and you can see that this spirit-filled church not only knows how to do good, but it also knows how to have fun doing it.
When I asked Rev. Debra about the variety of outreach offerings her church offers, she shared with me that while everyone sees the Florida Keys as a kind of vacation paradise, in the Keys, just as everywhere else, people struggle with difficult life challenges. Rev. Debra is proud that her church reaches out and serves the most vulnerable people, both children and adults, in the Keys.
As I reflect back on what Rev. Debra shared with me I was struck by what a parallel there is between the fragile and vulnerable ecosystem of the Florida Keys and the fragile and vulnerable ecosystems of the people her church serves, and in fact, those of all of our lives. Florida residents tell stories of the hurricane storms that have disrupted their worlds and left them feeling so defenseless, and the storms even have names; Andrew, Charley, Frances, and Wilma. Who amongst us can’t name storms that we have weathered that have disrupted our lives? These storms have names such as a health crisis, the loss of a relationship, the death of a loved one, or a loss of a job might be a few? Even when our lives are going well and it seems that all is paradise, we know that we are always vulnerable to a sudden change in condition.
The main focus of the wellness programs we offered at St. Columba’s last weekend was about how to build resilience-how to be better able to bounce back and persevere when life hands us unwanted challenges. Throughout our talks we presented the fact that all the recent research on resilience focuses on two essential factors that contribute to a person having a good degree of resilience in the face of challenges. These two factors are a strongly developed spirituality and a vital connection to a strong community of support.
After spending so much time with the people of St. Columba’s it is now clear why they are so resilient in the face of their many challenges- they have a strong sense of spirituality and a deep sense of community. We would all be wise to learn from our new friends in the Keys. The ecosystem of all of our lives are indeed fragile and each of us is vulnerable to storms at times, but with a strong sense of spirituality and community, we can be resilient even in the midst of life’s toughest challenges.