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Church’s shelter: ‘hands & feet of Christ’


PENSACOLA, Fla. (BP)–Evacuee Jamie Ferrier sat in the gym of East Brent Baptist Church with time on her hands, desperate for news amid rumors about the damage Hurricane Gustav had inflicted on her New Orleans-area community.

“We won’t know until we are allowed back on Thursday or Friday,” Ferrier said Sept. 2.

The 27-year-old, her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Madison and her mother met up with other family members at East Brent Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla., after fleeing St. Bernard parish on Sunday.

After riding out the storm in a hotel in Mobile, Ala., dwindling funds forced the extended family to seek housing from the American Red Cross. They were sent to the ARC shelter hosted by the church Sept. 1, where they slept on cots, lined up for meals and used portable toilets.

In the span of three years, the family has endured much hardship.

St. Bernard was one of the communities most devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Located just southeast of New Orleans below the Lower Ninth Ward, the community suffered significant structural damage to every residence and business after the levees broke and flooded the parish. The road back for most has been long and hard.

The Ferriers’ mobile home was destroyed by Katrina. During their first evacuation, Ferrier’s mother fell in a hole and her injuries necessitated four hospital stays in the ensuing months. In those days, the pregnant young woman and her mother survived for weeks on sandwiches.

The Ferriers had just gotten back on their feet when Gustav came and only recently had begun renting a home in St. Bernard. Also heart-wrenching: Ferrier hasn’t been unable to locate the father of her daughter, who was rumored to have been evacuated first to Texas and then to California to escape Hurricane Rita, which followed Katrina in 2005.

“I think he believes we are dead,” Ferrier said.

The sobbing young mother, despite her troubles, said, “I’ve got to stay strong, even if it has messed up my life. My main goal is to pray to God, get back in church and get my life back together. I want to find my baby’s father.”

On Sunday, Aug. 31, East Brent pastor Dale Patterson told the congregation, “This week we will give ourselves away.”

Patterson, who said he is “not looking to climb a ladder” from the church’s aid to evacuees, emphasized a servant spirit of leadership.

“This is who we are,” Patterson said. “This church is very generous,” having often served as a community shelter. “When the crisis comes, it’s the opportunity for us to be the hands and feet of Christ.”

By Tuesday, Sept. 2, there were between 250-300 evacuees at the church, a number that had increased from the original 150 as other area shelters closed.

East Brent member Carol Cunningham pitched in almost immediately helping with registration and serving meals while talking and praying with the families. She has learned that many are overwhelmed and frustrated.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Cunningham, who, as director of the church’s homeless ministry, has had experience “dealing with people who are in pain and down on their luck.”

The church is doing its best to respond to specific needs, Cunningham said. A gas card was given to a man whose mother was dying in Mobile. Internet service was made available, while games and a playground entertained the children.

“The people in the church are very nice to us,” Ferrier said. “Any questions we have had, they will try to find out the answers.”

Both Ferrier and Cunningham said there are still a lot of questions being asked by people in the shelter about how some will make it home without assistance like gas for their vehicles if the Red Cross or other organizations do not issue assistance.

A Florida Baptist disaster relief feeding team from the Pensacola Bay Baptist Association has been at the church preparing and serving meals, such as beef stew, peas and peaches on Sept. 1. The team will continue to feed until the evacuees leave.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist also stopped by the church Sept.1 to observe the work of the Red Cross and Baptist volunteers.

“This is all about doing unto others,” Crist said, the Pensacola News Journal reported. “Literally, thank God that you’re safe.”

Meanwhile in Panama City, a handful of Gustav evacuees were housed at the Bay County Fairgrounds Sept. 1. But the next day, their numbers started increasing, said Phyllis Poland, special ministries director for the Northwest Coast Baptist Association.

“We thought we were going to close down on Tuesday, but we were bombarded with people that afternoon,” she said. “These people have been staying in hotels and motels, but after several days they could not afford to stay there any longer.”

Because the fairgrounds had no cooking facilities, the association purchased food from local restaurants at a discounted rate and took box lunches to some 100 evacuees.

Blue Springs Baptist Conference Center in Marianna also served as a shelter, housing 15 people from Louisiana and Mississippi at the center’s youth camp where cabins are equipped with private bathroom and shower facilities and meals were served in the dining facility.

Jeff Gnann, the conference center director, said six Florida Baptist disaster relief volunteers were on hand to serve the evacuees. Many more were expected, with officials telling Gnann to prepare for up to 180. Evacuees began arriving Aug. 31, but a number had left by Sept. 2.

“We are ready to go again and we are ready to help out whenever we can,” Gnann said.

For Pat and Easy [no last names given] from New Orleans, the trek back to the Blue Springs conference center brought back memories of when they fled New Orleans three years ago before Katrina.

Blue Springs was where they learned an important life lesson. Returning home, the couple said they were devastated to find their home completely flooded.

That’s when Easy said he turned to Pat and said, “Why don’t we pray like they did in Marianna?”

After they prayed, a white church van pulled up and seven youth jumped out to help them salvage what they could from the soggy remains of their home. The experience prompted Pat and Easy to begin to attend church and stay involved -– an experience Gnann said the couple shared with other Gustav evacuees at the Baptist youth camp.
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Barbara Denman is director of communications for the Florida Baptist State Convention. Staff at the Baptist College of Florida contributed to this report.

    About the Author

  • Barbara Denman
    Barbara Denman is communications editor for the Florida Baptist Convention. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.Read All by Barbara Denman ›