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Evacuee: This town is big on ‘football … caring and giving’

ENNIS, Texas (BP)–Officially, it’s Ennis Emergency Shelter #1, but at Tabernacle Baptist Church, an American Red Cross-certified shelter for evacuees from Hurricane Katrina’s devastating New Orleans flooding, they call it “Operation Love.”

The church’s family life center became the rallying point for community volunteer efforts –- and the official short-term home for 40-plus evacuees, 33 of them from one extended circle of friends and family in the Lower Ninth Ward of Orleans Parish who camped out in the Tabernacle gym, with mattresses neatly organized by family group covering the gym floor.

Each evacuee had a dramatic story of how Hurricane Katrina had changed life forever after flood walls broke and the floodwater began to rise.

Retiree Lillian Pierre left her home on a Sunday morning with the hopes that she would return to New Orleans in a day or two. “We went into the attic, and we were there 10 minutes when some firemen came in a boat and got us. It was like someone had brought a long limousine for us,” Pierre said.

All of her eight children were safely evacuated to Texas, including a son who was transferred from a VA hospital. “We have been blessed. Ennis has been so good to us and has treated us like we’re family,” she said.

“Mama Pierre” dispensed advice to her fellow Katrina survivors like a matriarch might. “You came out of the water to live, so don’t just die. Hurricane Katrina? You can’t do nothin’ about it,” she said.

The shock of permanent displacement began to sink in as appointments were made with the Texas Workforce Commission and a local apartment complex. By Thursday, evacuees were anxious to settle into a place of their own -– but getting interim assistance from FEMA for things like emergency expenses and housing meant paperwork to procure an all-important FEMA case number and related vouchers –- and that took time, the real gift the Tabernacle volunteers gave the evacuees.

A steady stream of volunteers and evacuees looked to church member and project coordinator Stacy Hejny for guidance as one long day followed another, and she was fine with that. “When you’re called and you’re given the opportunity to participate in God’s activity, you just have to do it…. You do this because that’s what Jesus would do.”

Frequent meetings kept evacuees informed about the administrative issues that had replaced the daily routines of home. Hejny told the group that more than 400 people had called to see how they could volunteer and be of help. “They want to come down here and look at you and love you,” Hejny said, assuring them that they would one day have the chance to be the ones to help others. “One day, y’all will be in a house of your own, and you will be the ones coming to volunteer.”

Laundry. Lost driver’s licenses. School clothes and buses. The logistics of sheltering evacuees could have been overwhelming without support from the community.

W.B. Kinzie is the city’s health officer and one of several physicians who treated the evacuees. “Some of these people have had to wade around in that slop –- we’re talking about hepatitis exposure, tetanus exposure and a communicable disease situation,” he said.

Labor Day found Ennis Independent School District administrators at Tabernacle, registering more than 20 students without the benefit of a single report card into the town’s highly rated school system. “Most of these students’ records are underwater, gone forever,” said Ennis superintendent Mike Harper. “We will make adjustments where appropriate to meet whatever needs they have. They’ve got good teachers and counselors to take them in. We expect them to join us and do really well.”

Artist LaJuan Schlegel makes her living painting the bluebonnets the town is famous for as the Bluebonnet Capital of Texas, but in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, her spatula was needed more than her paintbrush –- and she also took time out from cooking in the Tabernacle kitchen to visit with the evacuees individually. “They need pampering -– they’re just wore out, and they need hugging,” she said, smiling as another evacuee came by for a squeeze. “Love you,” they said. “Love you, too,” she said back.

Tabernacle’s associate pastor for education and administration, Mike Sellers, took on the day-to-day operation of the shelter, working with a committee of church leaders from many local denominations, and he considered it one of those “high callings” the Bible talks about.

“We have a church that has become ministry-minded. We’ve gone from being committee-oriented to being ministry-oriented. This is an assignment that God has given our community,” he said.

“As the body of Christ, we’re called to do God-sized assignments, and we as a body of believers must respond to God’s call to be on mission with Him…. I believe this is one of the God-sized invitations we’ve been given, and we’d be foolish to turn away from God’s invitation.”

Sellers cited Christ’s Great Commission of Matthew 28 to “go ye into all the world” and preach the Gospel as biblical grounds for doing something as practical and massively scaled as becoming an official shelter. “The world came to us,” he said.

“Churchgoing, non-churchgoing –- it doesn’t matter,” he said, anticipating a time when the volunteers could relinquish their work and just be neighbors the new area residents see when they’re shopping at Wal-Mart. “When our doors shut as a volunteer-run shelter, we will be back to being a church and the proof will be in the pudding as to whether we welcome them to our community.”

City manager Steve Howerton said the response from the Ennis community to the New Orleans disaster has been remarkable -– and timely.

“There has been an outpouring of Christian love and concern, and that’s what makes community, that’s what makes family,” he said. “This is a relocation of historic proportions. It’s not short-term, it’s going to be long-term. It’s about assimilating our new neighbors into our community.”

A week after finding a haven at Tabernacle Baptist Church, things were just starting to look like they might eventually return to something near normal -– just in a different state -– for the evacuees.

High school junior Kevin Provost had been set to play first-string cornerback for New Orleans’ Abramson High School. After Katrina, his family’s home was under water, and his mother’s business, a clinical lab, was likely destroyed. So were his home field and his dreams of gridiron greatness and a college scholarship. But by the time they fired up the Friday night lights, he was one of four new Lions on the playing field. After a visit from the EHS coaches and statewide waivers of various regulations, Provost joined the team that won three state 4A titles in five years.

His mom, Gail, like the other evacuees, was very vocal in her praise of the hospitality shown at Tabernacle Baptist Church: “This town is big on football, and it’s big on caring and giving.”

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  • Jackie Larson