JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Riding with my feet dangling over the tailgate of a pickup truck down Pensacola Beach’s main drag, the swooshing of sand underneath the truck’s tires was the only sound in an otherwise almost eerie emptiness.
It was just days after Hurricane Ivan struck the Gulf Coast. Wrapping up a few days’ coverage of relief efforts at Gulf Breeze and Pensacola, I was hurrying back to my home and office in Jacksonville to prepare for Jeanne, the final of four devastating hurricanes which swept through our state in six short weeks.
A relative newcomer to the region, I was awestruck, saddened and then hopeful by what I saw day after day in travel throughout the state. By the time Ivan hit Pensacola, I had already spent weeks on the road interviewing and photographing people — trying to put a face on a story that threatened to overwhelm me in its magnitude.
A few weeks after the coverage began, my 21-year-old son, John, joined me in my effort. Stocking the ice chest, making hotel reservations so that I could access high-speed Internet, printing out maps to churches and helping me to interview, identify and photograph people became his mission as well as mine.
That morning on Pensacola Beach, we had one purpose: To find and photograph a cross that I had seen in the sand dunes in the early coverage of the hurricane by a local newspaper.
It wasn’t an easy task, but armed with prayer and a peculiar mission, we set out to fulfill my wish.
Twenty-some years earlier I had walked the beaches there as a young sailor. I had cruised down the loud streets and reveled in the warm salty air and had taken a nasty sunburn back to nearby Corry Station, where I was in military school. It was the beach of my youth. And now, it was nearly inaccessible — a peninsula covered with sand and strewn with debris.
At a check-point where the four-lane bridge to the beach had been narrowed to a single lane on each side, a law enforcement officer stopped our SUV. Glancing into the vehicle, he asked me if we were insurance agents and I shook my head. “Press,” I told him, pointing to the magnetic sign on the side of the SUV and my ever-present press badge attached to the khaki photographer’s field vest I wore.
“Oh, we don’t like press here,” the officer joked, nodding and winking to another nearby.
“That’s OK, we’re ‘Baptist’ press; the good press,” I offered, smiling patiently.
Quickly, the officer nodded us on and told us to be sure to park in the casino lot at the other end of the bridge. From there we could walk to our destination or make other arrangements with additional security checkpoints.
Riding over the bridge, I breathed a prayer of relief that we had made it past our first obstacle. Now, our mission seemed not only obtainable, but nearby. Of course, that meant we needed to find someone who knew where the cross was.
Driving into the casino parking lot, I noticed the National Guard had set up quarters in a beach pavilion right on the shore. The first soldier I asked was familiar with the cross’ location. He said it was about a mile and a half down the beach, up on the dunes. We could either hike there or ask the security detail on the main road for permission to drive to it.
Loaded with gear, with the sun already high in the sky, I knew it would be a stretch to make the hike and be on our way without a serious time setback. Again, thanking God for the provision of making it so far already and establishing that we were close to our goal, I jumped in the SUV and drove to the checkpoint at the head of the main road.
“No way,” the officer told me when I repeated the Guardsman’s directions. Utility and bucket trucks lined the street ahead, he said, and I would endanger the workers if I didn’t know where I was going.
Resigned, but determined to make the hike if need be, I began to turn the SUV around when I noticed the officer speaking with a gentleman in the vehicle behind ours — gesturing to me to wait a minute before driving back to the casino lot. I stayed put and the officer told me that a special agent from Live Oak would be happy to transport us down the beach to find our goal if we would wait a few minutes.
Heart pumping hard in my chest by now, I was grateful when the officer motioned for John and me to jump in the back for the short drive. He knew exactly where the cross was, as did the local resident riding with us who told us it had withstood all sorts of weather for many years. The resident was riding to check out his home, which had been mostly blown away, and his parents’ home, which he said was all but destroyed as well. “We’ll have to start over,” he said simply.
It was a drive like no other.
Snow white sand had been plowed high on both sides of the street. The scene was a Christmas card gone wrong — framed with droopy palm trees whose fronds were seared by salt water, parts of cars emerging from debris, splintered homes, and bombed-out buildings. A massive wave of water had crossed the peninsula — pushing boats aground, knocking holes into walls and leaving tons of sand everywhere.
By the time we got to the place where we could see the cross on a dune high above the road, I was almost speechless, just trying to absorb the enormity of what was before me. The only thing that was remotely familiar was the sound of the surf breaking on the shore.
Pensacola Beach would never be the same again, I thought, but the cross — the cross — still stands and Jesus is the same, yesterday, today and forever.
Climbing up to the dunes, I finally handed the camera over to my eager and talented son. “This one’s for you,” I said, gesturing for him to go ahead and climb up. “Remember to tell the story with the picture. I’m counting on you.”
I haven’t been disappointed. Weeks have passed and still the thought of the cross in the midst of the storms comforts me. The photos were excellent, as I knew they would be. God’s hand was in our mission all along.
From the special agent who drove us down the beach, who “happened” to be a member at First Baptist Church in Live Oak, to the throngs of volunteers that flooded our state and the hundreds of thousands of Florida Baptists and others who have been afflicted and who have reached out themselves in the midst of hard times — the cross still stands as a present reminder of the hope of Jesus Christ.
That day on the beach allowed me to stop, catch my breath and focus on that which is right: the message of the cross.
May we remember it always.
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, available online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.