When Pastor Carlos Perkins watched his wife Carla Perkins preach her trial sermon on September 17, he didn’t know that it would be one of the last Sundays that the family would worship together in the church that he pastored—St. Luke AME Church on St. Croix, Virgin Islands. “While watching my wife deliver her initial sermon, I was a proud husband and prayerful pastor,” Perkins said. “It was amazing to witness how the Lord continues to use her in ministry and to fulfill his promises. We have grown together as a couple over the past 17 years.”
Since the Perkins Family arrived from Bowie, Maryland more than three years ago, Pastor Perkins had spearheaded extensive renovations of St. Luke AME Church with a new sanctuary, roof, and furniture. It was growing. Forty people had joined in the last year, bringing the church’s membership roll to 170 people.
With an audience of more than 70 people, Perkins’ wife stood in the pulpit of the 98-year old St. Luke AME Church pulpit and preached a sermon called “God Will Take Care of You.” It was based on 1 Peter 5:5-9.
The largest hurricane ever to hit St. Croix arrived on September 20, three days after Carla Perkins’ trial sermon. Hurricane Maria left five people dead throughout the islands, destroyed homes, and forever changed the makeup of the St. Luke Church family. Through this trying time, Pastor Perkins and his wife have continued to lead their church and family with the word of God. With the help of the Connectional AME Church, Pastor Perkins and his church community are on their way to a full, but difficult, recovery that is proving that God cares for them.
Hurricane Irma had just missed St. Croix on September 6 but hit St. Thomas, where the AME Church has the Family of Faith AME Mission. On September 19, the Perkins Family found themselves in a familiar position—preparing for yet another Category 5 hurricane—Maria. Before the storm, the Perkins bought enough food and water to last them for a week. By 4 pm, the electricity went off. Perkins, his wife, 9-year-old daughter, and 14-year old son huddled in the living room, praying and singing gospel songs. Yet, even that was scary. “The wind was so strong that we felt the window was [sic] about to come in,” Perkins said. “The wind sounded like lions fighting outside,” Perkins said.
By midnight, the kids had fallen asleep but Perkins and his wife stayed up through the night trying to stave off flooding in their home. By the morning, the storm was gone. The Perkins’ house had survived with no major damage but Pastor Perkins had to go check on the church. The usual 10-minute drive from his house to St. Luke took him 45 minutes as he drove cautiously around downed trees, electricity poles, and debris. Someone even used a machete to chop up a tree that was blocking the road so he could pass.
When Perkins drove up to the church, he couldn’t park his car in the driveway because fallen trees blocked it. The roof of the church’s fellowship hall and administrative office sat in the front yard, which was also covered with church bulletins and tithing envelopes. Several windows were blown out. The church’s front door swung back and forth.
St. Croix’s other AME Church, Bethel AME Church, suffered massive damage to its foundation and will likely have to be rebuilt in the near future. The church is pastored by Presiding Elder Uklyn A. Hendricks and attended by Virgin Islands governor Kenneth Mapp. Grady AME Church recently reopened but it is now without a pastor. None of the 300 AME members in the territory were injured. They only lost physical possessions. “We believe that God will help us to rebuild,” Perkins said. “God has given us the resources to renovate. God will rebuild lives and the sanctuary,” he added.
Seven weeks after Hurricane Irma and five weeks after Hurricane Maria, 88% of the Virgin Islands are still without power. More than 25 members have left St. Croix and the St. Luke Church to rebuild their lives on the mainland. With no reliable electricity, most people don’t have running water in their homes. Schools just reopened last month but half of the school buildings on St. Croix were destroyed. Pastor Perkins serves as an assistant principal of an alternative school so he has spent the last few weeks preparing for school to reopen. There’s a daily curfew that runs from 8 pm until 5 am in which no one outside of the national guard and police can be on the streets.
For seven Sundays, Perkins held Sunday worship at St. Luke AME Church with no electricity, which meant no amplified sound, water, or bathrooms. It was just the pastor’s word, the choir’s voices, and the people’s responses. His recent sermons have focused on Psalms, in a series called Living in the Glory of God. “God is our refuge,” Perkins said. “The series has flown exactly where we are spiritually and personally in the recovery. It’s helping us to find our song in the times of darkness,” he commented.
In this time of great need, the Connectional AME Church, with the leadership of Bishop Anne Henning-Byfield in the 16th District, has supported Perkins and the Virgin Island AME family. Even before the two hurricanes hit the Virgin Islands, Bishop Henning Byfield maintained a close relationship with the two churches and the territory. Before each hurricane, she called every pastor to check on them and pray with them. Soon after Hurricane Maria, she could not reach anyone for two days; but once she made contact, she immediately turned her attention to activating the Connectional Church to collect monetary donations for the Virgin Island churches. “I had to believe that God is well able to do what needs to be done,” Bishop Henning Byfield said. “This is not going to be a relay, it is going to be a long haul. I had to believe that I, through the power of God, would be able to do what needs to be done,” she stated.
Bishop Henning Byfield said her work, done from afar, was especially difficult because it is difficult for her to travel to the islands right now. So she had to rely on her faith and the donations of AME members across the country. For inspiration, Bishop Henning Byfield often refers to Psalm 34:19, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.”
Some of the original donations helped church members move back to the mainland. The second round of help brought much-needed supplies like generators, chainsaws, food, and even insect repellant. Three shipments have been sent to the island. “Our Bishop has been tremendously supportive. She has been walking with us throughout this process,” said Perkins.
Besides rebuilding the sanctuary, however, Perkins must also focus on reuniting his family in the next year. All of St. Croix’s schools closed after Hurricane Maria. Not wanting their children to miss a month or more of school, the Perkins sent their 12-year old son to live with his godparents in Texas and their 9-year-old daughter to live with her grandparents in Florida. Both were deeply involved in the ministry. Perkin’s son ran the media ministry and his daughter participated in the dance ministry. “Nobody told me that doing ministry without my family would be a part of my mission,” Perkins said, “but it gives my wife and me [the] assurance that they are fine and we can give our 100% to rebuilding the community and church.”
Bishop Henning Byfield is still accepting donations for the churches in the Virgin Islands. People can donate electronically at http://www.ame16th.org/index4.htm#donations.
Ms. Kiratiana Freelon is an internationally acclaimed freelance journalist currently based in Brazil. Her articles have appeared in various publications including The Washington Post and theroot.com. Check her out on Facebook @GlobalKiratiana.