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Despite destruction by Katrina, church keeps missions focus

LONG BEACH, Miss. (BP)–At first glance it looked as though First Baptist Church had been completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, but that was before the character of its people and the cooperative spirit of Southern Baptists kicked in.

“Pre-Katrina … we thought we were a Great Commission church,” said pastor LaRue Stephens, pastor of the Gulf Coast congregation in Long Beach, Miss. “We gave a lot of money to missions, sent a lot of missions teams all over the world, and many of our people had been involved in direct support or going. We had our community food bank ministry, and housed it on our campus at no cost, plus provided volunteers for it.

“However, one of the sweet blessings of the storm is that God allowed it to remove the walls,” Stephens said. “We had to decide what do we do now, and we began to discover that the place to do church was not behind the walls in activities we called Bible study and worship. The place to do church is out in the community. With no walls to be concerned about, we saw the real needs of real people.”

Cooperative-thinking Southern Baptists, meanwhile, took note of the church’s needs. Within two weeks after the hurricane, First Baptist had sound equipment for its worship services and computers for its offices.

Located one block off U.S. 90, which runs alongside the usually placid Gulf of Mexico, First Baptist was in the direct path of Katrina when the hurricane made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005. All that remained of the church when the wind stopped howling was the worship center’s round roof and a modern-shaped steeple topped by a cross that the wind was able to blow through rather than push over.

Stephens, who has led First Baptist for nearly 11 years, said the church is “committed to maintaining our level of commitment to the Cooperative Program because number one, we know what it means to have nothing.” Pre-K (pre-Katrina), about 500 people worshipped at the church on Sunday mornings.

“We understand the value of a cooperative partnership because we have benefited from the cooperative efforts of Southern Baptists around the nation. But even before Katrina, we knew the value of the Cooperative Program,” Stephens said, noting that it gives the church “an organized and efficient channel … [to] engage in significant Gospel ministry that impacts people in time and for eternity.”

With the financial, prayer and hands-on support from 150 partnering churches across the country, First Baptist accomplished an amazing variety of ministries in the weeks and months after the hurricane, which touched virtually every family remaining in Long Beach and the surrounding region.

“It was a neat thing to watch our people,” said Brenda Davis, First Baptist’s minister of education. “They had lost everything, but they were helping others. It gave them a purpose.”

Among the church’s post-Katrina initiatives:

— An emergency distribution center was stocked like a grocery store, with as many as 1,400 people a day receiving food, cleaning supplies, batteries and more. Colonial Heights Baptist in Jackson, Miss., was a major partner in this outreach.

— A continuous supply of underwear was provided for local police and fire personnel, because the first responders had no place to wash clothes for at least the first three weeks after Katrina. First Baptist and its partnering churches also provided each officer with a personal ice chest and their departments with pallets of Gatorade.

— A school year’s supply of toilet tissue, antibacterial hand cleaner, paper towels and various other products were given to the Long Beach school system before the schools reopened in October. Meanwhile, backpacks stuffed with pencils, paper and other grade-appropriate supplies were provided for 1,250 students in the school system.

— A displaced church ministers’ support fund was essential, Stephens said, because “we could not afford to have any of our ministers leave.”

— A Katrina Relief Fund provided monthly support checks for 167 families “adopted” by the church in October, November and December 2005.

— Eleven high school seniors selected as the most deserving/needy by the school system received $1,000 Katrina scholarships from the church.

— In the first month after the storm, one family in the church had enough financial resources to buy a travel trailer. When they talked about needing to buy everything from dishes to linens and even a toaster for their new home, Stephens realized each family moving into a FEMA trailer had similar needs. The church staff developed a list of necessary items and provided 500 families with a “kit” valued at about $250-$300 of household items in three large plastic containers. Hoffmantown Baptist Church in Albuquerque, N.M., was a major partner in this initiative.

— Chain saw and debris removal ministries started the first week of Katrina’s impact, with Long Beach members guiding volunteer groups to their ministry sites, since street signs and other landmarks were gone. Mudout and gutting of homes started about a month later.

“We didn’t even think about rebuilding the church for nearly a year,” Stephens said. First Baptist initially met for worship services at an elementary school; now it meets at a middle school. “When we did start talking about rebuilding, it dawned on me that when you’re involved in meaningful ministry – connecting with people at their point of need -– you really don’t think about yourself or your need.

“Through Southern Baptists’ amazing spirit of cooperation, people from all over the country helped us meet peoples’ needs here,” Stephens said. “We’ve been overwhelmed by all the volunteers we’ve had.”

To this day, First Long Beach continues to coordinate housing for construction mission teams. More teams still are needed, Stephens added.

The church bought a 17-acre site a bit further off the shoreline, and its new 60,000-square-foot facility, with worship center seating for about 720 in multi-purpose space, is slated to open in July.

“Our regular church schedule has been pretty heavily impacted,” the pastor said. “We are able to be at the school only Sunday mornings. No Sunday evening. No Wednesday evening,” except for mission programs for elementary students -– RAs and GAs -– and choirs during the week.

Members meet in homes for three midweek Bible studies. The youth meet in a local office suite. First Baptist had a morning weekday preschool before Katrina, which now has grown into a full-day daycare in seven modular buildings for about 170 youngsters.

About 400 people now attend Sunday morning worship, but “there are some people who cannot sit in metal chairs or on bleachers, so it’s hard to say how many we’ve actually lost,” Stephens said. “I think we don’t want to stop and count. We had a number of people who lost their homes, but no deaths.”

Despite their losses, and the tremendous needs in Long Beach and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, First Baptist continued its five-year partnership with First Baptist Church in the port city of Bath, Maine, and is developing a three-year partnership with First Baptist Church in Aberdeen, Md., a Southern Baptist church directly outside a military base expected to triple in size over the next few years as other bases around the nation are decommissioned.

“The church in Bath had only been Southern Baptist for six months when we began our partnership,” Stephens said. “They were disbanding as a North American Baptist church and decided to give it one more try with the SBC. For the last five years we have sent mission teams, construction teams to remodel their facilities, as well as Vacation Bible School and leadership training.”

The new partnership in Maryland builds on a mutual military connection. A Navy construction battalion, the Seabees, is located near Long Beach, while Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., is about 15 miles away. Many military families live in Long Beach because of the highly regarded public school system.

“We feel strongly about our involvement with military families,” Stephens said. “We have been intentional in our ministry to the Seabees, especially, during the last 11 years.”

When Katrina careened through the area, Calvary Baptist Church in Bel Air, Md., became one of First Long Beach’s partnership churches. The person responsible for coordinating Calvary’s eight mission trips to the Mississippi Gulf Coast was Mike Karmann, a deacon and Bible study leader who recently was called as pastor of First Baptist in Aberdeen.

“We feel this [partnership with First Aberdeen] is a significant opportunity for us,” Stephens said. “Mike has led teams here to restore homes and make families whole again. How can we not go up there and help Mike rebuild their facilities, provide leadership training, backyard Bible clubs, and Vacation Bible School? We feel compelled to help that congregation connect with military families there.”

In addition to the 10 percent of undesignated funds allocated for the SBC’s Cooperative Program and 3 percent for the work of the Gulf Coast Baptist Association, the Long Beach congregation also budgets for a jail ministry, seamen and truckers ministry, ministry to Vietnamese nationals who have immigrated to the Gulf Coast and Baptist Collegiate Ministry on two local campuses.

“We’re very involved in missions; we’re committed to not becoming ingrown,” Stephens said. “We want to be an Acts 1:8 Great Commission church in practice. All of us [in the SBC] are, in theory, but we really want to be a church involved continuously in reaching out locally, in our Jerusalem, and in our Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.”

Currently, the church’s biggest challenge is “to avoid debt in our efforts to provide the ministry facilities and furnishings to carry on the ministries that are available to us right now,” Stephens said. “We have a $4 million shortfall [because of the building construction] and there is no way we can service a $4 million debt without adversely impacting our ability to continue all our ministries at the present level of engagement and to seize other opportunities as they present themselves.

“So many of the partnership churches have moved on in other directions, and yet the magnitude of need in the families of the community is still very great,” Stephens continued. “We have need of a Christian counseling service here and we’re trying to generate enough capital to start one because families are falling apart. The emotional, psychological and spiritual needs are at crisis level now -– as great today as right after the storm, if not more so.”

Other needs expressed by church leaders: a piano for choir rehearsals, organ, classroom tables and chairs, sound equipment for the children and youth areas, additional lighting, puppets and related staging, a third octave of handbells, teacher preparation materials for the church library, commentaries and computers for tutoring.

“We could use Christian inspirational reading but if we had to pick and choose, our goal is to reach and preach the Word of God,” Stephens said. “To communicate that to our people and our teachers, we need to assist with their Bible study materials because they lost it in their homes, too.

“God has faithfully provided everything we have needed at each stage of our ministry since Katrina -– and before,” the pastor continued. “We’re trusting Him to continue to do what He has done, as we have been obedient and even eager to serve in His Kingdom agenda in Long Beach and across the world.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.