Hurricanes bring wave of opportunity

by Karen L. Willoughby, posted Wednesday, September 24, 2008 (10 years ago)

SOUTHERN LOUISIANA (BP)--Three hours after pastor Steve Folmar heard that shysters wanted to charge an 86-year-old woman $18,000 to cut up and remove hurricane-battered trees from her yard, a Southern Baptist chain saw crew did the work for free.

Three days after Hurricane Gustav gouged Grand Isle, pastor Stephen Perry arrived back on the Louisiana coastal island. He couldn't stay -– no water/sewer/power -– but he made an initial assessment of how First Baptist Grand Isle might minister to its community of fewer than 2,000 permanent residents upon their return.

Three weeks after pastor Wayne Hunt heard he couldn't serve as a chaplain to victims of Iowa floods because he wasn't a certified Southern Baptist disaster relief chaplain, he got the training he needed. He was ready, then, three months later when Gustav hit Louisiana to lead Houma's Coteau Baptist Church to serve as the site for a Southern Baptist disaster relief feeding unit that reaches out twice a day with hot meals for up to 16,000 Gustav and Ike victims.

"This is a great opportunity for us -– us meaning Southern Baptists -– to serve as the hands and feet of Jesus, sharing His love with people who have lost so much, showing them God's care through our actions," said Cyndi Sellers, a member of First Baptist Church in Cameron, La.

"Being salt and light to our community -– that's the opportunity Gustav and Ike have given us."

Folmar, pastor of First Baptist Church in Houma, recounted one of the many poignant ministry moments in the wake of Hurricane Ike and, earlier, Gustav.

"Rose Savoy is an 86-year-old member of my church," Folmar said. "She had some people come by and ask if she wanted them to remove a couple of trees from her yard. They told her it would cost her $18,000. She agreed. Thankfully, we found out about it in time, and she hadn't signed anything."

While the media eye now is focused on Galveston, Texas, the command center of Southern Baptists' disaster relief (DR) efforts through the North American Mission Board has ensured a continuing stream of trained DR volunteers to southern Louisiana -– from the Mississippi border to the Texas border, and mostly south of Interstate 10.

"Southern Baptists remain committed to helping the residents of Louisiana recover" from Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, NAMB spokesman Mike Ebert said. "We still have 97 units and teams actively serving in Louisiana. These volunteers are feeding, removing debris, providing mud-out services to flooded homes and serving in many other ways."

In addition, churches from across the nation have sent volunteers to help in whatever way they can.

The opportunities seem endless.

Hurricane Ike destroyed Johnson Bayou Baptist Church, about 30 miles west of Cameron. Ike knocked the church off its foundation and blew out all of its framing. The roof lies on the ground, ringed by its red-brick outer shell and concrete blocks -– some with rebar still in place -– that provided structural support.

"We're sorry for your loss," said Tracy Webb, a local official with the Governor's Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness. "I know you worked hard to rebuild this after Rita."

Pastor Jack Gandy's double-wide mobile home, on six-foot stilts atop a high dirt mound, appears undamaged, but with the front stairs blown away, it's hard to tell. The house next door is nearly as flat as the church. Many other homes either lie smashed or stand with studs exposed.

Continuing east on State Highway 82, First Baptist Church in Cameron is in a state of ruin, as is much of the town. Though the church's "temporary" sign stands tall, the oak tree next to it toppled under hurricane-force winds. Though the church's walls remain standing for the most part, a refrigerator somehow moved from its upright position in the kitchen to lying flat in the front foyer -– though there appears to be no hole large enough for something that large to have flown through.

The Cameron church ministered over the last three years despite its near-mortal wounds from Hurricane Rita in 2005. Even as 15 teams from across the nation helped rebuild the fellowship hall -– the worship center was not yet complete when Gustav hit on Sept. 1 -– the church and its partners from across the country provided washers and dryers and the sheds to put them in for Cameron residents living in temporary housing while working on their homes.

First Baptist's fellowship hall was the only meeting space of any size in Cameron and was used for everything from funerals to weddings to fifth-Sunday sings and even rallies for volunteer teams working in Cameron.

Another 30 miles east, Oak Grove Baptist Church and the people in the community who also suffered from Rita took another strike with Ike. They had mounted a 2x4 diagonally across the front double doors. Ike ignored it. Hurricane force waves at least four feet high knocked open the doors, ripped out carpeting, pushed furnishings back against one corner, and soaked sheetrock and lower kitchen cabinets.

Jay Rutherford watched the water rise across the street as he was securing the church property. When he turned back around, the water had crossed the road and was moving onto the church lawn. He hurried into his 1992 blue Geo Metro and got within five feet of the highway, two blocks away, before rising floodwaters claimed the vehicle, stuffed with things he knew were precious such as his mother's favorite hymnal.

"The needs grab our heart and the opportunity should stir our soul," said Bert Langley, director of missions in Evangeline and Gulf Coast Baptist associations. "We're going to have to be creative to find out how to help these churches and the people in these communities. It's going to be a challenge, because these churches are not in the spotlight, like Galveston is, like New Orleans was after Katrina."

LIVES UPROOTED

A drive through Cameron, Terrebonne and LaFourche parishes, among others, reveals countless thousands of people whose lives were uprooted in a way similar to the giant trees that gave way to Hurricanes Gustav on Sept. 1 and Ike on Sept. 13.

People become vulnerable and open to the Gospel when their lives are uprooted, said Gibbie McMillan, the Louisiana Baptist Convention's disaster relief director.

"That's what makes disaster relief such an effective ministry," McMillan said. "People are hungry, and we give them two hot meals a day. People hurt to see a tree smashed through the roof of their home, and we give them help with chainsaw teams and mud-out teams. And with everything we do, we share the love of Jesus Christ with them."

Some homes in southern Louisiana have been knocked flat. Others have exposed studs. Many have blue tarp on their roofs. Even more have soggy piles of a family's life stacked in the front yard awaiting removal.

Many of those who didn't lose everything are now on a slippery slope to doing so because they spent money budgeted for utilities on mandatory emergency evacuations, said Johnny Johnson, interim pastor of Westlake First Baptist Church near Lake Charles.

"The flood came two feet higher with Ike than it did with Rita," Johnson said. "We expect a surge of benevolence requests for utility bills 30 days from now."

The Westlake church, certified in 2002 as a Red Cross emergency shelter for up to 305 people a night because its gymnasium has six showers, has been again serves in that role.

Laundry is among the varied ways church members serve the evacuees, many of whom fled with little more than one change of clothing, if that. Perhaps 15 members take home one family's laundry each day, which they wash, dry, fold and insert "goodies" as a reminder of the church's love.

"We pray to be mission-minded," said Bonnie Smith, a 50-year member of the church. "By the grace of God we're able to help. We could be one of those people needing a home.... At our age we can't go too far into the mission field. God is merciful. He brings them to us."

Coteau Baptist Church in Houma serves as the base station for a feeding unit that distributes meals via Red Cross emergency response vehicles (ERVs) the size of a department store delivery truck. The feeding unit, which involves many Coteau members, makes it possible for members at First Baptist in Golden Meadow to reach out in ministry to people in their community. The ERVs take insulated containers filled with hot meals to various sites, such as the Golden Meadow church, where the meals are dished into Styrofoam "clamshells" as people stop by, so it stays hotter longer.

"We heard about it on the radio, and then a friend told us about it," said Mary Jackson of Grand Isle after picking up meals for her and her husband. "I think the people here [First Baptist Golden Meadow] are wonderful for doing this. We're going to eat it on the way back, while it's hot."

Cheyenne Johnfroe, proud of her Native American roots in the Biloxi Chitimacha tribe, said she had to help when she heard First Baptist was to be a feeding station.

"The Lord's been blessing me at this church," Johnfroe said. "I see the need of the community and my heart breaks for them. I just hope through this mission [providing meals] we can touch the people for the Lord. There are so many lost people out there. They need the Lord."

In addition to providing hot meals twice a day, the Golden Meadow church spent $5,000 on diapers, wipes and household cleaning supplies, which are distributed on an as-needed basis. The church determined to put that much into the ministry, even though another goodly sum of money will be needed to pay for utilities from keeping the church open seven days a week as a distribution center.

"Economically, people are challenged here," pastor William O'Neal said. "They were just really struggling before the storm. We wanted to do something to help them return to a sense of normalcy when they returned from evacuating for Gustav. We know diapers are expensive, and we know they can't clean because they don't have the money to buy cleaning supplies."

The diapers and cleaning supplies helped about 500 families. About 22,500 people live within 15 miles north and 15 miles south of the church.

"We could use some financial donations to help us reach out to the people who live here," said O'Neal, who promised to pass on any excess funds to other Louisiana Southern Baptist entities as soon as they weren't needed. He also requested the help of self-sustaining volunteers.

"Here's a perfect opportunity for us to be light in the darkness," O'Neal said. "If we can just get people here to love on people. You can't put hope in a box. People here watch how people live. They value genuineness. If you go and you help hands-on, it makes a big difference."

Emphasizing a focus on ministry, O'Neal said, "It's ministry to take a tree off a house, but don't neglect the opportunity to share the Gospel. We give a tract with every meal we hand out, every set of diapers, every bottle of bleach."

Gary Hanberry, pastor of First Baptist in LaRose, took two trailers filled with about 3,000 pounds of items to First Baptist Grand Isle on Saturday, Sept. 20. The items had come from his church and from Alabama and Mississippi, he said.

Diapers, shampoo, paper products, personal hygiene items, water and more were neatly arranged on tables in the church's still-darkened half-gym, awaiting the return of permanent area residents.

Power was restored to some parts of the island on Thursday, said Stephen Perry, pastor at the Grand Isle church.

"We came here understanding this would be mission work," said Perry, pastor of the church since May, wryly noting the unexpected mission work necessitated by Gustav and Ike.

"We lost everything in Katrina, when we were living in student housing on the New Orleans [Baptist Theological] Seminary campus," Perry said. "We know what these people are going through."

The recent hurricanes did not dissuade him from future ministry, Perry said.

"I recently submitted a 15-page proposal to the Louisiana Baptist Convention. We have probably fewer than 2,000 permanent residents but the number swells to more than 20,000 in the summer."

He's asking for 1,000 short-term volunteers for next summer to help the church with eight block parties to minister during the island's 22 fishing rodeos, and to help restore the homes and property of Grand Islers. He also wants to find a house big enough to quarter 25 to 50 volunteers so they'll be comfortable enough to stay and help, and willing to return in the future.

"We want to be the lighthouse for this island," Perry said. "I want everyone who comes on this island to be impacted for the Gospel. It's a task we can't do alone. It's a task for Southern Baptists across the nation to be a part of. Together we can do much more for God than any of us could do alone."

While First Grand Isle needs the support of people elsewhere in Louisiana and around the nation, the church isn't waiting.

"We have an 80-year-old man who stayed for Ike, one of about 150 on the island," Perry said. "He was going to restaurants and sharing his faith. He's a two-and-a-half-year-old Christian, and he was telling people, 'If Christ is in your heart, you can make it.'

"He's right," the pastor continued. "I feel good. I'm tired, but I feel good, more than good. We have opportunities because of these storms to build relationships and minister to people, people who have never been reached with the Gospel. We engage them all the time, but it's opportunities like this that can really make a difference. The Catholic church isn't open; the Methodist church isn't open. We're the only Southern Baptist church in 40 miles. This is an opportunity."


Karen Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. With reporting by Baptist Message writer Philip Timothy.

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