Home News and Features Opening Reflection for the Forum on Recovery and the Future of Montpelier

Opening Reflection for the Forum on Recovery and the Future of Montpelier

Rev. Joan Duval
by the Rev. Joan Javier-Duval

Rev. Javier-Duval, who serves the Unitarian Church of Montpelier, opened the Forum on Recovery on Thursday, Aug. 10 with these words. The Forum attracted approximately 550 people (300 in person at the Alumnx Hall of the Vermont College of Arts, and 250 streaming online) to discuss Montpelier’s recovery and rebuilding. 

On Tuesday, July 11, as I received over a dozen texts and social media messages, emails, and phone calls from concerned friends and family across the country, the magnitude of the disaster hit me. The fact that we had just been drenched in a record amount of rainfall and our downtown was inundated with flood water was the top story on The New York Times. The flood disaster was making it onto the news in places many miles from the water-soaked streets, businesses, and homes of Montpelier. And, we were all of a sudden in the spotlight.

Some in our community have lived through other Montpelier floods; in 2011 and 1992, and I even have one member of my congregation who was a young girl living in Putnamville during the Great Flood of 1927. For some, the anticipation of what was to come with this flood, the reckoning with the damage and destruction, and the cleanup afterwards landed with a degree of familiarity.

For others of us, this was an experience entirely new and also entirely unexpected. 

Perhaps you are among those who came here seeking refuge from such disasters only to live through this one.

Whether you have experienced something like the July floods before or not, I think we all have felt just how extraordinary this disaster has been, a disaster that is not yet over.

We have each lost something in this flood. For some, the loss is very tangible. It is the very place you have laid your head to rest and gathered around the table with loved ones. It is the business born of a dream that you have built from scratch and with lots of help along the way. It is the place where you have earned your livelihood and found purpose along with a paycheck. 

Some of the loss we have experienced is intangible. A feeling of safety and security, the pleasure of strolling our downtown streets and bumping into a friend or neighbor, the anticipation of starting life afresh in a new place, the comfort and stability of calling this place home for decades.

My grief caught up with me late last week when I went to my office in the church building where I serve as minister. I was there to start packing things up because we needed to empty out all the rooms on the first floor to do the repair work needed on the walls and floors before we can safely reopen. 

Some dedicated volunteers had removed the baseboards and about 16 inches of sheetrock all along the exterior wall of my office. I took the scene in and tears came to my eyes as I felt the grief of seeing those exposed walls and everything in disarray. 

This is the room where I’ve spent hours listening to congregants share their own stories of grief and sorrow, where I’ve strategized and laughed with co-workers, where I’ve on occasion finished a sermon on a Sunday morning (don’t tell any of my church members that), where I have gazed out at the North Branch River right outside my window and even spotted a blue heron dipping its beak into the river’s waters searching for its next meal.

In that moment, the immensity of the loss that I, and really all of us, have endured was quite palpable. We have all experienced an intense period of upheaval that isn’t over yet.

And, there have also been bright spots and glimmers of hope over the last few weeks. The outpouring of support, love, and care from within and beyond our community got us through those first intense days and has continued to keep us going. We are beginning to face honestly and vulnerably critical questions of climate and community resilience. Some of these questions — such as questions of equity and inclusion — aren’t new ones, but are yet again put in the spotlight as we grapple with what it really means to be a community. There is a greater reckoning taking place with our fragility and mutuality in kinship with the land and waters that define our ecological landscape and the contours of our human aspirations.

All of this gives me hope in the midst of this incredibly challenging time.

I’ll close with this story from our church’s time of cleanup. On the second intensive day of mucking out, our congregational administrator and I happened to wander into the first floor vestry as we were discussing potential mold remediation needs. I noticed the small door beneath the stage which is right where some water had pooled during the flooding. We opened the door and discovered that water had seeped in and we would need to pull out all the items that were stored down there — card tables and lots of random pieces of wood. 

Right at that moment, a couple of volunteers showed up and we gave them the job. The very agile youth volunteer got right on her belly and slipped under the stage and started pulling things out. A few minutes later, one of them called me over to show me an unexpected find: a set of very old blueprints. On further examination, we discovered that these blueprints were dated February 1928. They were the plans for the building renovations after the flood of 1927. 

I have no idea how these blueprints — such special pieces of our history — ended up hidden under the stage. But how serendipitous that it took another flood almost 100 years later to uncover them.

For me, these blueprints serve as a hopeful sign that building a new way forward is possible. In fact, it has happened before.

We will be the ones who together determine what the path looks like, what values will guide us along the way, and how we will arrive there as a whole community.

Our collective discernment will require our engagement with all the parts of ourselves from which we draw wisdom — our intellects, our bodies, our emotions, and our spirits.

My hope is that we can bring open minds and open hearts into this dialogue and into whatever comes next.

Thank you all for showing up for one another and for being here.