Bishop's Interview: Town of West still needs our help, prayers

Editor: The small town of West, which sits at the northern edge of the Austin Diocese, was hit hard when the fertilizer plant exploded on April 17. How did the diocese respond as a whole to the tragedy?

Bishop Vásquez: Yes, it was very tragic and very sad for the people of West who lost their loved ones, or their homes and most of their belongings. Lives were literally shattered on that April evening when the plant exploded. Let me begin by thanking the good priests that serve the people in West. Father Ed Karasek, the pastor of St. Mary, Church of the Assumption Parish in West, and Father Boniface Onjefu, the associate pastor, responded immediately upon learning about the deadly explosion. They have continued to be the Catholic presence for the people of West –– praying with and supporting those who have been impacted by the tragedy.

The morning after the explosion, different departments and offices of the diocese came together and immediately responded to the situation that was going on in West. I am very proud of our staff, especially our Department of Social Concerns, which responded by communicating and working together with Catholic Charities of Central Texas and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

A group of diocesan staff members from our Catholic Schools Office, Religious Education Office and Family Life Office drove to West to help. Because we have a Catholic school in West, they wanted to provide help for the principal, teachers, faculty, students and parents. The Family Life Office started contacting counselors and assessing what the diocese could do to provide support and counseling for those who were suffering. The explosion left many people vulnerable; they were experiencing hurt and pain. So we tried to provide as much physical and spiritual support as we could especially in those first few days after the disaster.

Also right away, Catholic Charities of Central Texas and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul established funds where people could donate to relief efforts. To date, about $280,000 has been collected through these organizations. To donate, visit Catholic Charities’ website at www.ccctx.org or the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s website at www.ssvdp.org.

Editor: What are the ongoing efforts in terms of helping the people?

Bishop Vásquez: The American Red Cross is the primary lead in the immediate response efforts, but by the time this interview is published, they will have moved on to help elsewhere. Of course, those suffering from this disaster will need further care. The long-term relief response falls on the agencies that are in the area, this includes the Diocese of Austin working with Catholic Charities of Central Texas and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. We will continue to be there for people for the long-term. One of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul caseworkers said that a little more than half of the people who have come to the society for help have been uninsured. These people desperately need our help to rebuild their homes and their lives.

We are committed to helping them get their lives together, find temporary housing and then find permanent housing. They will need new household items, furnishings, clothes and food so that they can rebuild their lives. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Catholic Charities are once again collaborating to provide a "House in a box," which includes basic furniture to start over for those who lost everything. We have also heard that some parishes and parish groups are hosting "house showers" to supplement the basic furniture with new household goods like linens, dishes, flatware, kitchen appliances, decorative items, etc. The outpouring of response to help the people of West has been phenomenal, but we must continue to reach out to them and help them as much as possible.

Obviously, after such a tragedy, people’s lives cannot simply go back to the way they were prior to April 17, especially when there has been such a tremendous loss. So the diocese with the help of Catholic Charities and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has to have an organized plan to help these people in the long-term. I encourage parishes and individuals to work with our coordinated Catholic response so that we can ensure that everyone who needs our services is helped and we can get the best value for our donations.

Editor: How can we help these people in the months to come?

Bishop Vásquez: The diocese will continue to let people know how they can help via our website (www.austindiocese.org), bulletin announcements and in the Catholic Spirit. I think the primary way we can help the people of West is to pray for them. Many of us know them personally as they are our relatives and friends, but even if they are strangers to us, we can still be united in prayer with them and for them.

Secondly, we need funds to help people put their lives back together again. I have asked all of our parishes to take up a special collection, and those funds will go to help people establish permanent housing. We, as Catholics, believe we need to be engaged with people, which means we have to give of ourselves. I have been greatly impressed by the people who have come to West from across the state and country and beyond to help. Many people simply showed up and asked what can I do? How can I help? What services can I provide?

In the days and months to come, there are going to be different ways for people to help. I think all of us can participate in this situation and show what it means to be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are suffering, even if they are strangers to us. What unites us is our common human dignity, which God has given to each of us. We are called to reach out to those in need, to cry with them, to help them and to love them as they undertake the process of rebuilding their lives after this tragedy. This truly is what it means to be a compassionate person.

Editor: What is your prayer for the town of West as they seek to rebuild?

Bishop Vásquez: An appropriate image of prayer at this time is the wonderful image that we have of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, who takes that lost lamb or the injured lamb, and places it gently over his shoulders and carries it home to the flock. That is how God cares for each of us. In this beautiful image we can all find hope and consolation. With this image in mind, I share the prayer that I gave at the Memorial Service for First Responders of the explosion that was held on April 25 in Waco.

"All-powerful God, you hear the cries of those in distress; hear us now as we pray for our relatives and friends. You are hope in our adversity, strength in our weakness, and comfort in our sorrow, be merciful to your people. For the families who have lost loved ones, we ask you to ease their burden, increase their faith, and give them confidence and trust in your fatherly care.

Bless those who have sustained injury, may they receive your healing comfort; bless the first responders for their selfless acts of courage, may they receive the grace of your strength. Father, you have filled the hearts of your faithful in the community of West with the gift of love for one another. We raise, in prayer, the people of West, grateful for their many acts of kindness and generosity extended to their neighbors in the aftermath of this tragedy. Merciful God, your holy word promises that you will be with your people always and that you ‘...will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain...’ and you will ‘make all things new’" (Rev 21).

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