BATON ROUGE, La. (BP)–It was shortly after 7 a.m. Sept. 7 as a small group of laypeople sat in a Sunday School classroom at Florida Boulevard Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La., for the third straight morning brainstorming ways to alleviate the burden of relief work from the church’s staff nine days after Katrina struck.
Even with 100 church volunteers working 16-18 hour days, it wasn’t enough.
Above them on the wall in their makeshift war room, a white marker board showed a flow chart as complicated as any NFL pass play. Names, boxes, arrows, indistinguishable scribbles.
“We’ve got to take it over,” church member John Hudson told Baptist Press. “It was evident by Sunday that this effort at this church was overwhelming. That’s my challenge — figuring out the logistics of this. We’re two-and-a-half days into taking it all out of the staff’s hands and moving to a layman-based effort.”
The pastor of the 2,000-member church, Stephen Trammell, said he knew the church was in for a large role when the Oklahoma Disaster Relief team called the church from about 25 miles outside of Baton Rouge and asked, “Can you host us?”
Within hours, the church became more than a host.
As the city’s population has surged with an estimated 250,000 evacuees from New Orleans and outlying areas, activity at the church has also surged.
Wednesday morning, a nurse from Louisiana State University’s medical center was walking the halls, hunting access to e-mail. Homeland security personnel, armed with weapons and SWAT-like gear and making the church a temporary hotel, are a contrast in the hallways to kindly church women with purple “5:40” T-shirts, a reference to Matthew 5:40: “And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”
The church began collecting water, food and clothing to distribute to outlying relief centers. But so many evacuees began coming to the church for help, church leaders decided late last week to become a collection and distribution point, sending out large trucks and getting it directly to victims themselves through a network of other, mostly smaller, churches, said David Young, a member of a Baptist church across town who was helping direct collection at the church on Tuesday.
Someone offered a warehouse for the church to house its semi-trailers and collections. A guy from California even bought a semi-trailer and was en route to donate the goods on it, as well as the trailer for the church’s use, Hudson said.
Still, boxes upon boxes line many of the church’s hallways. Evacuees regularly drive up or walk up, asking where the help is.
Sunday School classes have moved to homes; the rooms are now berthing quarters for relief workers and law enforcement. About 12,000-16,000 hurricane victims and relief workers are eating food prepared by the Oklahomans and volunteers from the church. Additionally, the Red Cross is delivering about 8,000 of those meals to other relief points in the Baton Rouge area. The church also has hosted a mobile health center, Trammell said.
“Twenty-six states have called us, personally, to see if they could serve us through our church” after seeing the church in television reports on FOX News and The Early Show on CBS, Trammell said.
Will Day, a layman who was part of the early morning strategy session, said God’s providence is apparent in orchestrating matches between the needs and the provision.
Day said he was initially panicked by a phone call alerting him to 20 18-foot semi-trailers coming from Tennessee Baptists with supplies for the church to distribute.
Within five minutes, Mark Stermer, pastor of a non-denominational church across town, was asking for about 20 trailers full of clothing, water and supplies.
“I said, ‘I can do that,’” Day said.
Kayla Puckett, a volunteer from Owasso, Okla., who returned to the church to help after being here last week, said, “This church has stepped up to the plate to meet the needs of this community. I’ve never seen anything like it.”