When Jonathan Falwell saw the first signs of what would become Hurricane Irma swirling on the weather map, he moved up the dates of his Caribbean vacation—a surprise trip to St. Martin with his wife for their 25th anniversary—just in case.
He never imagined they’d be sleeping on pool loungers in a makeshift hotel shelter, coming face-to-face with the destruction of a category-5 storm, or flying home on a Samaritan’s Purse plane.
Falwell—son of the late Jerry Falwell and pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia—helped coordinate early relief efforts while stranded for days on the island, one of the hardest-hit by Irma.
“In a situation like this, I had the opportunity—and I do believe it was an opportunity—to be right smack dab in the middle of it,” he said. “I think it’s just a great reminder of how truly urgent that it is that we get the gospel out to let people see that yes, we live in a broken world, but yes, there is an answer and that answer is Jesus.”
In an interview with CT, Falwell shared his prayers, stories, and theological lessons from his time stranded on St. Martin and his involvement in the recovery since then.
What went through your mind when you realized Irma was going to hit the island?
We got down there, and we were watching the storm. The storm was picking up speed and certainly picking up power. On Monday night, we got a notification that the flights were canceled, the airport was closed, and we weren’t going to get out of St. Martin on the flight that we had intended. It wasn’t until Monday that we knew we were going to have to hunker down and make it through.
I just assumed it would be a bad storm—some wind, some downed trees—and we’d just stay inside for the night and come out the next day and see a little bit of damage and go about our business. We had no idea the destruction that was going to be caused by this storm.
What was it like among the group in the shelter? Did people know you were a pastor?
That night, when they brought us all into the shelter, everybody was on their own. It was this atmosphere of, “We’re going to sit in here for awhile, then we’ll go back to our business.” At about 5 o’clock in the morning, the staff of the hotel woke us up and told us that they were going to move us to the room next door. Then, 15–20 minutes later, we began seeing and hearing the incredible winds and rain. The room that we were in just moments before, the roof blew off, the walls blew out, the doors started shaking. That’s when we realized this thing was pretty serious. The roof of the room we were in began lifting and coming down, and the walls were shaking.
But at that point, honestly, no one was really looking to each other for support or encouragement. It wasn’t until the storm had passed, and we were beginning the process of recognizing it. A couple of staff members went outside to look at the destruction. They came back, and one guy announced to us in the shelter, “It looks as if a nuclear bomb has gone off.” It wasn’t until that point that we knew it was going to be a long-term situation.
It was until after the storm that I got involved—all of us did, everybody in the shelter. We were cleaning, we were moving debris, we were trying to mop up the water that was several inches deep in the room and throughout the hotel. I began talking with the people who were running the shelter, trying to make some plans…. It wasn’t until after that people understood that I was a pastor and could talk with and encourage some people during that time.