Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee
During the dark days after Hurricane Michael, meet the Army vet who sparked hope in Florida.
It’s near dawn on a calm, sunny October morning in 2018, and a group of people are gathered under an awning at St. Dominic Church in Panama City, Florida. The stillness of the morning is a stark contrast to what unfolded just a week ago, when Hurricane Michael plowed through this poor coastal town, tearing off roofs and upending lives.
Under the awning, Andy Cornett wears a T-shirt that reads “Set St. Dominic Ablaze”—the message written by hand with a Sharpie marker. He’s learned that in the chaos of leading volunteers and reaching out to thousands affected by the storm, a simple written message on a shirt can keep people focused on a mission.
Andy knows a lot about missions. He served in the U.S. Army for 23 years, both in infantry and as a helicopter pilot. So when the storm hit the Gulf coast of Florida, he knew that there was desperate need for a coordinated response, to gather volunteers and reach out to the vulnerable. Months later, Andy describes his reaction:
“When this storm happened, it's as if it was like the Pentecost for me. My fire just came alive. I saw a need and I saw a chance to help people and to show people the Holy spirit.”
As a parishioner at St. Dominic, his thoughts quickly turned to how the parish might reach out to those in need. He had been volunteering with the Red Cross, but his heart was pulling him toward ministry in the Church. He reached out to St. Dominic’s pastor, Fr. Michael Nixon, and got to work. He saw people who were in despair, and wanted to send a simple message. “It's showing them that there is a God who cares. There is a Holy Spirit.”
The parking lot at St. Dominic became a staging area for all the relief efforts for the region: food, water, clothing, and medicine—millions of pounds of these necessities made their way through St. Dominic in the ensuing months.
Andy was at the heart of this massive effort, directing volunteers and reaching out to vulnerable people. On one day, it may be visiting an elderly woman whose home was flooded and who had to live in a trailer for months.
Another day, it’s removing downed trees which had been snapped like matchsticks in the back yard of a disabled man.
But through all these efforts, Andy is laser-focused on the real mission: sharing God’s love. He says of the man whom he is serving, “I don't want him to see Andy. I want him to see that there is a higher being that's helping. It almost makes me cry to think about the fact that this guy thought he was hopeless. Maybe he understands there's something bigger to him helping him, not just this guy that he'd just met two days ago that doesn't even know.”
For Andy, the light of Christ is not about him: it’s about what happens when people come together. “I think because the light of Christ, it's like in me through these folks that are all around me. It really is. I'm just an instrument of the Holy Spirit.”
The Lumen Christi Award is proudly presented by Catholic Extension, a non-profit that
provides grants to build the Catholic faith in the poorest areas of the United States.