PASCAGOULA, Miss. (BP)–“Who needs Jesus? If you’re lost and need Jesus, come over here.”
That’s what George Swaringen was saying at the end of a food line at First Baptist Church in Pascagoula, Miss., when Morris H. Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee and a Mississippi native, arrived at the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief feeding station there.
“I tell the people, ‘You’ve got bread and water from the food line. But I’m passing out the Bread and Water of life,’” Swaringen, a member of Antioch Baptist Church in Woodbury, Ga., told Chapman. Swaringen had already led several people to Christ -– one while Chapman was on-site.
“George, Southern Baptists praise God for men like you,” Chapman said. “We love you, and we thank the Lord for your letting Him use you like He is doing.”
Before they parted, they prayed for each other.
Meeting with Rex Yancey, pastor of the Pascagoula church, Chapman said, “I wanted to come down and get a firsthand view of what was happening.”
As Yancey reflected on that, he said, “On behalf of my church, I’d like to thank Southern Baptists for what they’re doing.
“What the people here need now are not words, but actions. And when the local people see the words ‘Southern Baptist’ written on these [disaster relief] trucks, and see the people wearing yellow shirts in these serving lines, they know there’s hope,” Yancey said.
Such hope was on display on a side street next to the church, where cars were lined up for several blocks, with the line extending several more blocks down an adjoining street.
“You got diapers?”
“Do you have any ice?”
“I need some food.”
That’s what Susanne Howard heard from victims of Hurricane Katrina as they spoke from their cars concerning the necessities of life.
Despite a sweltering sun and the muggy Mississippi climate, the disaster relief volunteer from Cottage Hill Baptist Church, Mobile, Ala., stood on the hot pavement, brushed sweat from her eyes and completed a checklist of supplies as each motorist expressed their needs.
“Just give this list to the people on the lot, and they’ll fill your order,” she’d say with a smile and a “God bless you.” Howard then directed the Katrina victims toward the church parking lot that looked like a truck stop. In each trailer were tons of disaster relief provisions.
Howard said she volunteered because “my Lord, Jesus Christ, commands me to get out and help people when I can. My family’s fine. My house is fine, and I have the resources to do so.”
Inside the church, Jim Wood, 68, of Millry (Ala.) Baptist Church, echoed Howard’s comments. “I had a little damage at my place in Alabama,” Wood said. “My barn roof is laying out in my back yard — so what?
“I’m healthy and I just love to help people. I’ve done that all my life. When I find someone who needs something, I want to help them all I can, and I try to let them know the help is coming from the Lord,” he said.
The disaster relief site needed a different kind of help when it first opened, Wood said. Though the National Guard was watching the site by day, would-be looters were lurking nearby at night. That forced the volunteers to place tons of palletized goods back into the trailers and lock them.
Late one day, volunteers were securing the provisions when “six guys came walking up,” Wood said. “Big, burly guys in black uniforms. They said, ‘We’re Homeland Security forces and we’re here to help you.’” Two remained at the church, patrolling church grounds by night and sleeping in Sunday School classrooms by day.
“I just said, ‘Thank you, Lord.’ I tell you, I was ready to shout,” Wood said.
Chapman, along with Yancey and others, toured Beach Boulevard, a street that abuts the shoreline a few blocks south of the church where several church members’ homes were located.
Yancey related each member’s story as Chapman listened. The favorite study chair of one member, for example, was located about a mile inland.
Chapman was moved by Yancey’s compassion for his people, especially since the memory of ministering to his flock at the First Baptist Church in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1979 remains ever-fresh in his mind. He had been pastor there only two months when three tornados merged together at the city limits and stayed grounded for eight miles, carving a one-mile-wide path as it spun out of control. Eighty-three families in the church lost their homes.
“Wichita Falls had been devastated by multiple tornados that simultaneously swept through the community,” Chapman said. “I remember the strong feelings of sorrow and sympathy I felt along with the helplessness of not knowing where many of my members lived or what had happened to them.
“Dr. Yancey’s compassion is remarkable because he experienced personal loss himself in this catastrophe — with his home gone and his church damaged,” Chapman continued. “Yet, his focus is on caring for others’ needs. He’s worked for days on end at the church with little thought about his own losses.”
From Pascagoula, Chapman visited the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief feeding station at First Baptist Church in Biloxi.
While in Biloxi he met a young mother with her young daughter in tow coming to get food. When initially approached about her ministry needs, she said she was “OK.” After a pause, she told Chapman that although her nephew wasn’t 2 years old until Monday, the day of the hurricane, her family held a birthday party for him on Sunday afternoon. On Monday, he drowned in flood waters from Katrina. But her burden seemed lightened after Chapman prayed, asking for God’s comfort and peace that passes all understanding upon the family.
To the cooks at the feeding station, Chapman said: “I’m glad to see this Mississippi unit here. Because of you guys, a lot is happening to aid so many people in need.
“I’d also like to say thank you on behalf of all Southern Baptists and tell you there’s a lot of people praying for you. Keep up the good work.”
In the midst of heartache, Chapman was pleasantly surprised to meet a fellow Mississippi College alumnus, Jerry Bishop, pastor of First Baptist Church in Lauderdale, who was serving as a Baptist disaster relief unit director.
“We’re working to channel as much funding in this direction as possible,” Chapman assured Bishop.
Such funding will be needed for churches like First Baptist, Gulfport, to recover.
When Chapman saw the crippled shell that Hurricane Katrina left of that church building, he was visibly taken aback.
“A building is not the church,” he reflected. “But it’s hard to see this destruction and not feel that this congregation has been seriously wounded.”
But, Chapman and SBC Executive Committee member Clarence Cooper of Mississippi found some inspiration among the debris.
“We picked up a Bible among the rubble that was cemented open by sediment,” Chapman said. “On the page our eyes were drawn to Ephesians 6:10: ‘Finally be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.’
“What a great word of encouragement to all of us, including those who have experienced Katrina and those who are staring in the face of Rita. In times like these we realize just how powerful God is, how helpless we are and how much we need Him. In Mississippi, there are many God-fearing people. The same is true about Alabama and Louisiana. But for those who are not Christians, I pray that, as a result of such a devastating storm, they will realize the need to trust in Jesus as their personal Savior.”
With Hurricane Rita looming in the Gulf of Mexico, Chapman encouraged all Southern Baptists to pray.
“The impending landfall of Rita figures to double the disaster we experienced three weeks ago and I pray that God will grant us a double portion of His grace and mercy,” Chapman said.
“I ask Southern Baptists to pray God will spare our country further calamity or enable us to withstand Rita in a way that glorifies our Lord Jesus Christ.”