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Aiding Katrina victims in La., collegians abandon comfort

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–Missouri pastor Lee Whitley heard the message loud and clear: “It’s bad. These people need help.”

On the other end of the phone conversation was a fellow pastor on the Gulf Coast requesting Whitley’s help in mobilizing churches to provide disaster relief in the region.

Whitley, pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Washington, Mo., immediately began e-mailing and calling Southern Baptist churches in the Franklin County Baptist Association to form a disaster relief team to head to Louisiana.

“I put the team together really in three days,” Whitley said of the short notice given.

As he began recruiting volunteers, one of the first phone calls he made was to Scott Brawner, dean of students at Midwestern Baptist College, SBC, and director of Fusion, the college’s year-long program to provide training in hands-on ministry and missions.

“When I found out that we were going and believed we should go and that God was in it, one of the first thoughts I had was this would be great for the Fusion group,” said Whitley, whose daughter, Britney, is in the Fusion program.

Although the first-year Fusion team already had been ministering in Kansas City-area churches as part of their training, they weren’t scheduled to do such extended missions work until January.

But Brawner recognized Whitley’s offer for the Fusion students to join the team as a “God-given opportunity for the kids to participate in ministry service and leadership right now.”

“It was a stretch for them because it pushed them out of their comfort zone immediately and when they didn’t expect it,” Brawner said. “And through it, God began moving in their lives in a way they didn’t expect or intend.

“It forced them to come up to the challenge of serving when called rather than when they were ‘ready.’”

In all, 26 people representing six Missouri churches stepped forward for the weeklong disaster relief trip Sept. 12-18, including 13 from Midwestern’s Fusion program.

Whitley said Franklin County churches raised more than $6,000 to fund the trip, with two providing a van and an enclosed trailer that was packed with paper goods, water, food, personal hygiene items and other supplies.

The Fusion team left Kansas City on Sunday, Sept. 11, for Washington, Mo., to meet up with Whitley and the other volunteers. From there, the 26 volunteers left on a 14-hour drive to Slidell, La., a community north of New Orleans off Lake Pontchartrain which was hit with an estimated eight-foot storm surge that flooded most of the community.

Fusion student Quinn Roddy, 18, of St. Louis, said he’d never seen anything like the devastation in Louisiana.

“There were dead fish on the side of the road for miles and miles away from the water [Lake Pontchartrain],” Roddy said. “In east Slidell, there was timber everywhere. It was like somebody had dropped a bomb, with flattened houses and boats on top of houses. Just lots and lots of destruction.”

He said the combination of rotting food in refrigerators, mud from the flood and the “horrendous volume of trash in the street” made the smell almost intolerable at times.

Erika Sumpter, 20, of Broken Arrow, Okla., another Fusion student who participated in tsunami relief efforts while on a mission trip to Thailand during the summer, compared the devastation she saw in Louisiana to her Thailand experiences.

“Having been to Thailand, I realized those people didn’t have anything to begin with, but after the tsunami they didn’t have anything either,” Sumpter said. “But to experience it from an American perspective where they had something before the hurricane was different. They had nothing left and some couldn’t find their family members.”

During the trip, the group helped with tree removal, cleaned up debris, unloaded supplies, assisted the Red Cross in serving meals, sorted donated clothing, manned a First Aid station, and cleared out mud, belongings and flood-damaged parts of churches and homes.

The group said the highlight of their trip was helping a couple who had just returned to their flooded-out house.

“It was the first time they got back [to their house],” Sumpter said. “It had to be hard on them, they couldn’t keep anything. There was sludge everywhere from the driveway to the rooms to their back porch,” she said.

The couple had traveled two hours to see the damage and begin the cleanup of their home, which was hit with eight feet of flooding, including raw sewage.

“She asked, ‘How much are you charging to do this?’” Whitley said. “We said, ‘Nothing, we’re volunteers.’ As soon as we told her that, she burst into tears.”

Whitley said the couple’s neighbors had just paid more than $8,000 to have their house cleared out. But the couple didn’t have the money to have it done professionally, so they prayed God would send somebody to help.

“Just out of short order, out of nowhere, there we were,” Whitley said. “It was a God thing big time.”

Initially, the team assigned a group of Fusion students to help, but then the whole group rallied to finish the cleanup as it was the last day of their trip and time was short.

As the job began and progressed, Whitley noticed that the family had started to smile.

“We could just see attitude and countenance change within hours,” Whitley said. “You put 15-20 people in a home and things happen. It would have taken them a month by themselves, but we could do in hours.”

Roddy said seeing the hurricane’s victims sweeping their entire life’s belongings into the street gave him a new perspective on materialism.

“It gave me a more humble attitude about my possessions and how blessed I am and how things of this world are meaningless unless you have Christ,” Roddy said.

Whitley said the hard work of the Fusion group was encouraging to him.

“I think sometimes young people get a bum rap, that they’re all classified into one group, that they’re lazy, that there are fewer and fewer young people serving the Lord and committed to following Christ,” Whitley said. “They’re kind of all lumped into a group.”

But Whitley said the hard work and sacrifice of the Fusion group proved otherwise.

“They’re proof that that’s not true, that there is hope for the next generation, that the message of Christ and the Kingdom will go forward until Jesus comes,” he said.

    About the Author

  • Cory Miller