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Families, churches pick up pieces after Hurricane Ike

LABELLE, TEXAS (BP)–Joshua and Kristin Loflin pulled into their driveway on Hilderbrand Road in LaBelle, Texas, and were relieved to see their brick ranch home standing. On first look, the house looked as if it had escaped the wrath of Hurricane Ike.

Their relief would be short-lived.

The young couple — who had evacuated to Longview and Monroe, La. to weather the storm — first noticed the pungent smell of gasoline. They found squishy carpets, an overturned refrigerator and a line on the wall -– evidence that three feet of salt water had recently filled their home.

But it wasn’t the monetary loss of appliances, clothes and furniture that stung the Loflins most. It was losing their wedding photos and video. It was losing precious pictures of Kristin’s deceased mom. It was the loss of a rocking chair lovingly handmade by Kristin’s parents when she was expecting her first child. Most of all, it was their children’s losing everything in their rooms, from their beds and clothes to every toy they owned.

“See that dinosaur,” said an emotional Joshua, picking up soggy stuffed animal still dripping with water. “That was Malachi’s favorite toy.”

Mike Lene (pronounced Len-AY), a burly guy with a full white beard, is a deacon at LaBelle Baptist Church, a stone’s throw away. But he’s also Kristin’s father and the man who built her house 30 years ago. Because Lene lived in an apartment in their house, he lost his home to Ike, too. None of them had flood insurance. Their homeowners insurance will not cover the damages.

But Mike has no time to grieve the loss of his home. In his bright yellow cap and shirt, he’s too busy assessing the hurricane damage as a Southern Baptist disaster relief volunteer. How does he go on? Only two years ago, he lost his wife, Kristin’s mom.

“We just have to keep our faith,” he says. “As bad as this is, we can rebuild the inside of our home. We still have a house. You look at Bolivar or Sabine Pass, and those people have nothing left. You can always find someone worse off than you. I know God will take care of me.”

Lene’s faith in God can be traced back to his church, LaBelle Baptist and pastor Bill Fondren.

“Hurricane Ike was a devastating blow for the community,” said Fondren, “but we have insurance on the church and ceiling tiles and carpet can be replaced. As a church, we’re OK. But our heart is with our people who are suffering.”

LaBelle has experienced four named hurricanes or tropical storms in the last three years, the worst being Rita, Fondren said.

Because a mandatory evacuation order was issued, most of Fondren’s members traveled north into Texas and Louisiana to escape Ike, and most have not yet returned to see the damage inflicted on their homes and personal property.

“Church members who evacuated call me on my cell phone and one of the hardest things is to have them ask me, ‘How’s my house?’ And I have to tell them they’ve got three to six feet of water in their house.”

LaBelle Baptist only moved into its new church building last Thanksgiving. Attractive with its gold steeple and warm beige walls and trim, it’s also high-tech, with video screens and a state-of-the-art sound system. Fortunately, Ike only tore a slight gash in the church’s front, but heavy rains damaged some ceiling tiles and the sanctuary’s brown carpet.

Last September, LaBelle Baptist members were given “Sharpies” and asked to write favorite Bible verses on the sanctuary’s concrete floor before carpet was installed.

“When we were ripping up the wet carpet this week, we found our verses, which were dated 9-9-07, almost a year to the day before we had to evacuate for Ike,” Fondren said. In the very center of the sanctuary, directly in front of the pulpit, was the verse someone had penned from Joshua 1:9: “Have I not commanded you to be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified. Do not be frightened. I am with you wherever you go.”

LaBelle Baptist Church — with its young pastor and weekly attendance of 130 or so — is the only church in tiny LaBelle, a farming community of 2,500 just south of Beaumont. The unincorporated community is located just 18 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico. In Ike’s aftermath, the little congregation’s mission and ministry are now suddenly more focused and urgent.

“As the only church in the community, the people are going to be looking to us for help, even those who are not members. When disasters like this hit, people either turn away from God or turn to God,” said Fondren, who’s pastored the church for six years. “People have questions. We’ll try to minister to them and tell them God still loves them, that God is the God in all things, even in the storms. He doesn’t say all things are good, but He does say you can work all things for the good.

“We’re here to serve the community,” Fondren added. “We believe that every church member is a minister. My job as the preacher is to equip them to go out and do the ministry. But our hearts go out to our members and community because 85 per cent of them lost their homes. This building is not as important as ministering to our members and local people.”

Personally, Bill and his wife, Scha, suffered no serious damage. Floodwaters didn’t reach the church and its adjacent parsonage, which Fondren said is exactly what Scha prayed to happen.

Fondren, who also serves as chaplain for the LaBelle-Fannett Volunteer Fire Department, joined search and rescue missions that plucked 43 citizens from their flooded homes using Black Hawk helicopters. He also waded through chest-deep, gasoline-contaminated water to pull victims to safety. A tetanus shot was his reward.

Stressing that negatives can be positives, Fondren said LaBelle Baptist, would not have its new church without the insurance payments resulting from damage caused by Hurricane Rita three years ago.

“And after Rita, our weekly attendance and membership grew,” Fondren said. “We look for the same thing to happen again.”

And yes, Bill Fondren and LaBelle Baptist Church will hold Sunday morning services as usual this coming Lord’s Day.

“Before the hurricane, I preached a series on Job. This Sunday, I think I’ll preach on Job’s double-blessing on the other side of his trials,” Fondren said. “Like our folks, Job never understood — just like we’re going to have people wondering ‘why?’ He just knew that God was sovereign. I want to prepare our members and the people of LaBelle, as a family of God, to see a double blessing from God after Ike.”

Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers are serving in 30 locations in Texas and already have served more than a quarter of a million meals in response to Hurricane Ike. One Louisiana unit continued to serve in Sulphur, La., with at least two more ministry locations planned for the state. Another 13 locations were planned to begin ministry in Texas on Thursday or soon after.

In response to hurricanes Ike and Gustav, Southern Baptists have to date prepared more than 1.3 million meals, logged 10,369 volunteer days, made 11,562 ministry contacts and seen 99 professions of faith in Christ.
Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board. To donate to Southern Baptist Disaster Relief ministries, call toll-free (866)407-6262 or visit www.namb.net.

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  • Mickey Noah