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US: Priest grasps for words as storm victims question their pain

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In this Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017, photo, the Rev. Mark Goring walks by mounds of clothes donated for victims of Hurricane Harvey at the Catholic Charismatic Center in Houston. The priest has been inundated with requests for spiritual guidance in the aftermath of the storm, but has also been tending to people's material needs, organizing a huge relief effort. (AP Photo/Matt Sedensky)© The Associated Press In this Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017, photo, the Rev. Mark Goring walks by mounds of clothes donated for victims of Hurricane Harvey at the Catholic Charismatic Center in Houston. The priest has been inundated with requests for spiritual guidance in the aftermath of the storm, but has also been tending to people's material needs, organizing a huge relief effort. (AP Photo/Matt Sedensky)

HOUSTON — The Rev. Mark Goring nears his parish community center and the mounds of trash come into view. Shards of plywood and plaster are stacked atop heaps of black trash bags bulging with soggy filth. Inside, soaked furniture has been pushed aside as workers buzz jigsaws to cut slabs of drywall soaked by more than two feet of water that gushed in from the bayou.

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It's a mirror of what many who pray alongside this priest are struggling with at home, and he draws them close in a circle, heads bowed and hands clasped. He tells them they worship a god of miracles, that they won't be crushed by their losses, that as mysterious and unwanted as it may be, this trial is a gift that reminds them what exactly they hold true.

"Now is the time," he tells them, "for us to stand on our faith."

Some who have come to Goring in the days since Hurricane Harvey hit ask what kind of god would allow such suffering. It's a question for which he has no answer. Others who have lost everything come with broad smiles, praising the heavens in gratitude and displaying a depth of faith the 41-year-old priest isn't even sure he could show. All of them are in search of something, putting Goring's ministry in a race to help with both spiritual and material needs, and to use the devastation as an opportunity to be an example of love wherever he goes.

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"You rejoice with those who rejoice," he said. "You mourn with those who mourn."

At his church, the Catholic Charismatic Center south of downtown, the sprawling lobby is a swarm of volunteers manning tables full of donations for the storm's victims. He kicks off brown sandals and jumps unto a stout tile-lined wall abutting a dormant fountain, where he records one of numerous videos he posts online to reach his flock. His hair is close-cropped and a sun-kissed shade of brown and his office has a bright orange surfboard against one wall and two skateboards propped up by the door, clues to his outdoor passions.

This is a church of unconventional priests perhaps made for this anything-but-conventional time. One of his brother priests, the Rev. David Bergeron, got trapped in his truck on Interstate 610 as the storm struck. As Sunday morning dawned, he took the kayak out of the back, paddling to try and buy wine so he could celebrate Mass with the rest of the stranded. Bergeron wears black Wrangler jeans and matching Crocs and recounts miraculously finding an open convenience store and grabbing a bottle, but being turned away at the register because it wasn't yet noon.

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"People are sad, people are uncertain," 38-year-old Bergeron said. "And what we try to do is to bring people hope."

Each day now is a flurry. This morning, Goring was sopping up water that seeped through the walls of the house he shares with Bergeron and another priest, all of them members of the tiny Companions of the Cross order. After a stop at the church and the trip to survey damage at the community center, he's back in his 11-year-old Acura SUV, winding through streets with lingering pools of water and stinking piles of trash, looking for untouched places and any sign of need to send teams of volunteers out to help.

The logistics of it all weigh on him. One moment, he's talking about renting a huge trash bin, the next he's on the phone with his idea to teach some young parishioners how to drywall damaged homes, a boon to those in need and a bit of vocational training for the rest. He was struck with inspiration to unleash a big relief effort after seeing the lights on in a tiny taco restaurant right after the storm struck, awed how quick they reopened and eager to make his own house of worship a beacon for those with a different kind of hunger.

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"The church is open," Goring said. "The lights are on."

He understands how Harvey's suffering could drive people to lose faith. He grew up on the Ottawa River in the small city of Pembroke, working long days on a strawberry farm in his youth. His parents raised him Catholic but, as a teen, he became convinced science held the answer to every question and renounced religion, deeming himself an atheist. After a few years, he returned to the fold and discovered the charismatic movement and not long after decided the fulfillment he desired in life would come from being a priest.

He drives through Houston's streets, near the George R. Brown Convention Center where he saw so many thousands suffering, beside mountains of wreckage he proclaims heartbreaking, by the faces of the poor and the hurting who wonder what comes next. So many in his parish who he would have turned to for help leading his recovery efforts are tending to their own fractured lives, but others have stepped forward and they have plowed ahead. This will consume his life for weeks ahead and perhaps much longer, but he knows how much it is needed.

"They already were simply trying to survive," he said.

The mid-afternoon sun is blaring and Goring has again reached the church, across from a vacant mattress factory and next to a construction site full of bulldozers. He heads to his office, where a stark white alb is draped over his desk chair and rosary beads hang from the white board. Three volunteers file in to talk about the supply of items they're distributing, and Goring begins the meeting with a prayer in which he expresses thanks for the rare opportunity he's been given to serve and love the people. Bergeron traveled to Haiti after its mammoth earthquake, but Goring has never seen such a magnitude of loss before. He says he doesn't even try to understand it, focusing instead on the beautiful things that have risen from it.

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"It's the age-old mystery, the mystery of suffering and evil," he said.

The rest of the afternoon disappears. Donations constantly arrive. Phone calls come in telling of flooded apartments and swamped cars. A new video is posted online warning supplies at the church are running low. A child wraps his arms around Goring's waist and the priest offers hugs and handshakes and grasped shoulders to those who look at him with admiration. Women sort through towering piles of clothes, cases of bottled water are neatly stacked, food and toiletries are organized on white plastic tables, and a constant string of visitors collects what they need into white garbage bags. More than 100 volunteers are dispatched by car and bike to rip out walls, pull up soaked carpet and scrub clean the houses of people scattered across town.

The city's skyline pokes out in the distance and as the volunteers fan out, Goring silences the unending cacophony, ducking into the stillness of a small candlelit chapel and immediately sinking to his knees in prayer. He asks for God's help and thanks for the aid that already has been sent. A joy has come in this sadness, he insists, a spirit has been awakened in the people.

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Sedensky can be reached at [email protected] or https://twitter.com/sedensky .

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