Katrina tragedy still grips missionary's call
HOUSTON (BP)--Ginger Smith couldn't believe her eyes when she saw the news coverage of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina had blown through the city, leaving behind massive flooding.
"I would fall asleep each night watching CNN," Smith recalled. "When they showed pictures of the Superdome and convention center, I knew that many of the faces lost in the masses were people I'd known."
Smith, a North American Mission Board missionary in Houston, had served in New Orleans for nine years at the Brantley Baptist Center. Her clients were the very people trapped in the flood-ravaged Crescent City.
One of the faces lost in the masses was Patricia Stevenson. Ginger was Patricia's caseworker when she first came to the Brantley Center several years ago. Patricia was a drug addict and alcoholic and was living on the street. Ginger helped her with her addictions, taught her life skills, but most importantly, she told her about Jesus' love and redemption. After three months, Patricia accepted Christ.
"Patricia had a significant change in her life and attitude," Smith said. "It's been a long process for her. The street, the drugs, the lifestyle, all of that was hard to overcome and learn a different way of doing things."
Smith watched as God worked in Patricia's life. "It was more than evident that God had truly changed her, because she had to constantly battle with Satan," Smith said. "Yet every single time she came out on the other side. And she always gave praise to God for doing it."
After serving nine years in New Orleans and investing her life in people like Patricia, God called Smith to serve as executive director of the Baptist mission centers in Houston.
"I loved working with the homeless in New Orleans. I loved meeting people like Patricia. I thought that was where I would be for the rest of my life," Smith recounted. "But when I started to pray about the move, I realized the only other place I loved more than New Orleans was Houston."
A mission center in Houston was where Smith had been a summer missionary as a high school student. "It was that summer when I started to pray about and consider God's call on my life to do inner-city missions," Smith said. "Being able to come back to where it all started was just very special to me."
So Smith made the difficult decision to leave New Orleans.
"It was really hard to leave Patricia, and she was very hurt when I told her I was going to leave," Smith said. "But she was also very gracious, because she knows God, and she knows God has plans for people."
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Smith dealt with feelings of guilt. "I was sitting high and dry in Houston thinking, 'I left, I bailed on them.... I could have been there to help and now I'm here in Houston, and what can I do?'"
Within 48-72 hours after the hurricane, Houston started preparing for an influx of evacuees from New Orleans. And Smith started getting calls asking for help.
"We decided to close one of our mission centers for our regular ministry and instead open it up as a resource site for people that were coming from New Orleans," Smith said.
More than 15,000 people came from New Orleans to Texas, most of them stopping in Houston. Several of Smith's friends who were working in Louisiana shelters called to tell her that they were sending people her way. One of them told Smith, "You can do more for us in Houston than you could if you were in New Orleans."
"It was really neat how God allowed me to minister to the people that I cared about so much in New Orleans," Smith reflected.
As Smith ministered to evacuees, she couldn't get Patricia out of her mind. She searched for Patricia's name at each of the FEMA shelters in Houston. "For days and days I went, and I never saw her name."
Almost three months after the hurricane, Smith finally found Patricia's name on FEMA's website. "I'll never forget Nov. 29 because at least I knew she was alive," Smith said. "I didn't know where she was, but I knew she was alive."
Patricia eventually landed on her feet in Houston and called Smith. She'd kept Smith's number in her Bible. It was one of the few items family members were able to retrieve from her New Orleans' home.
The first thing Patricia asked Smith was for help in finding a church. Smith got her plugged into Rittenhouse Baptist Church in Houston.
Now Patricia is actively involved teaching the youth, as her daughter Eliza accepted Christ at youth camp a few years ago.
"When you go to Patricia's apartment complex, everybody knows her," Smith said. "They all call her by name, and many of the kids will get on a bus with her every Sunday morning and go to church with her.
"Everybody knows she's a Christian and that she doesn't live the lifestyle she used to live. You could never convince anyone that it's anything other than the power of God in her life. It's just that evident in her.
"I'm very thankful that God brought Patricia to Houston –- even though it was through tragic circumstances -— and now we have an opportunity to still be friends," Smith said.
"There's value to being able to disciple someone and walk with them. And not only teach them but let them teach you. Patricia has taught me so much."
Carol Pipes is editor of On Mission magazine with the North American Mission Board. To view a video about Ginger Smith's ministry, visit www.namb.net and click on "Monthly Missionary Focus."