Updated Monday, November 5, 2012 at 03:05 PM
OCEAN CITY, N.J. — When the wind started to race and the sea breached the shore, rushing through streets and homes, sweeping away keepsakes and security like so many seashells, people wondered: Where was God?
People muttered his name over and over in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. It captured their disbelief and their sorrow, but it was also a plea. How could this happen?
It was up to The Rev. William Kelly to provide the answer the other night at St. Damien Catholic Church in Ocean City. It was one of the many communities along the Jersey Shore hit by Wednesday's hurricane, but it was spared the destruction and loss of life suffered in other parts of the state.
I went back there Friday to see the damage for myself; I was born in New Jersey and have been vacationing in Ocean City for decades. It means something to me.
Parishioners came to pray after days of sweeping sand and draining water, cutting up fallen trees, tearing up carpets and leaving their sea-soaked possessions at the curb.
Kelly, who just came to St. Damien's in June, looked out at the Saturday evening Mass and did his best.
"God was right there with us, suffering through it," Kelly said. "God is with us every day."
The church had filled up well before the 4:30 processional. There were long hugs and excited waves and people turned around in the pews, sharing stories of loss and survival.
Mary Nunan, 90, had three trees in her yard fall over — but away from her house.
"I was lucky; they all fell the other way," she said. "I think God sent them the right way. I am grateful. It could have been much worse."
Same with Betty Massimo, who has lived in Ocean City for 30 years, 20 of them full time.
She came to Mass to express thanks to God, she said, "Because I didn't get much damage."
"I call this the 'holy island,' " she said. "I think we have a worshipping island that respects God."
Linda Hanna, who lives in Drexel Hill, Pa., came down to check on her vacation home but also to be with this community.
"There's an intangible bond of living here," she said. "It's different than other places. Once everybody goes home after the summer, people have a long winter and spring. So it becomes a family.
"This storm," she said, "has made it even smaller."
The announcements by Sister Joelle Thren, who served as the lector, were longer than usual.
The church bulletins didn't arrive on time because of the storm. A movie showing was moved to next week. The Halloween party was postponed. The All Saints Party and even the pancake breakfast were canceled.
"We lost the sausage with the freezer," Thren said with a wry smile.
This is a New Jersey parish, after all, where humor is Gospel, too.
Kelly opened his homily by singing the chorus to Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do With It?"
"The reading is about loving God," he said. "Loving God with all our soul and loving our neighbor as ourself. There are no two greater commandments than these.
"So love has everything to do with it."
He spoke of the love in the former parishioner who invited him to stay with her family off the island during the storm. The love and concern posted on the church's Facebook page. The love that brought the utility workers to drive in from other states to help. Even the love that could be found in the credit-card companies that waived late fees for those affected by the hurricane.
After the Mass, Kelly talked about the "spirit of togetherness" in the parish, and how important it is now.
"Half the people here tonight lost half their homes," he said. "They didn't have a chance."
Hanna nodded along. "It's only material things," Hanna said. "It's not what's important. What's important is God and love and community. You can ask, and somebody is there to help."
Sometimes you don't even need to ask.
On Sunday morning, two huge trucks with Delaware plates pulled up to the church with donated goods.
"People are so good and conscious of the needs of other people," Thren said. "And we didn't have any loss of life.
"So I don't think you have to think too much about it. God was right here holding our hand."
STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Linda Hanna talks with The Rev. William Kelly on Saturday at St. Damien Catholic Church in Ocean City, N.J.
STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A piece of the Atlantic City boardwalk sits in the street among the sand and debris. In the distant background is Revel casino, the newest in Atlantic City, N.J.