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From hugs to clothing, evacuees heartened at relief center

SLIDELL, La. (BP)–She rummaged through the boxes of stuffed animals before finally settling on one. Breanne picked up a stuffed bear, hugged it and held it close as she continued to scour the piles of toys waiting for new owners.

Breanne is 9. Or, to be more accurate, “Nine and a half and fixing to turn 10,” as she says.

Hurricane Katrina may have robbed her of all her possessions, but it didn’t take her joy.

“If I still have my doggie and my kitty, I’m happy,” Breanne said.

Fortunately for her, Breanne’s golden retriever Daisy and her cat Gracie made it through the hurricane unscathed, as did all of Breanne’s family.

Still, like so many others, they were left with few earthly possessions. And so they came to Grace Memorial Baptist Church in Slidell, La., a disaster relief center offering hurricane victims clothing, food and supplies -– all free of charge. In the church’s parking lot, a 100-foot tent covered the boxes and racks of donated clothes that would become part of the wardrobes of hurricane victims with nothing left.

“We’ve had literally hundreds — people from all walks of life and people from all over,” said Margaret Grow, a disaster relief volunteer from Hickory Cove Baptist Church in Rogersville, Tenn. “Most of them are devastated and most of them don’t have much of anything left.”

Some come to the church because they are hungry or need supplies. Others just need a listening ear and a shoulder on which to cry.

Janelle Bly fit into the latter category. She and her husband Martin had stopped at the church on a Saturday morning for breakfast. As Janelle finished eating, the tears started flowing.

“She just said every three or four days she has a meltdown and just has to cry,” said Margaret Bradley of First Baptist Church in Greenville, Tenn.

Bradley sat down next to Bly and did her best to provide words of comfort.

“Jesus still loves you,” she said. “And we love you.”

The two women sat with Bradley’s arm around Bly’s shoulder. They hugged and prayed together.

“I’m a hugger and I’m a crier,” Bradley said. “I said, ‘Honey, just cry it on out.’”

Hurricane Katrina had robbed Bly and her husband of their home and their possessions. Martin was leaving for a new job in Houston, Texas, in a few days, and Janelle was staying behind to resume her own job as a schoolteacher.

She didn’t know how she could keep going. Bradley often wonders the same thing.

The volunteer goes to bed every night mentally and physically exhausted from the day’s activities. She prays for strength, and every night she thinks there’s no way she can go on.

“But I get up in the morning and [God’s] given me the strength to do it one more day,” Bradley said.

Mike Boyd, pastor of Wallace Memorial Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., said his time as a volunteer in Slidell had been profitable. As a chaplain at the disaster relief site, Boyd tried to minister to everyone who came to the church for help.

“Everybody who came in I shared the Gospel with in some fashion,” Boyd said. “Sometimes I was able to go a little more in depth. I prayed with just about everybody I came in contact with.”

Boyd encountered one family of four generations of women. The husband of the great-grandmother, in his 80s, had refused to evacuate their home. Rescue workers found his body inside the house.

“Obviously I spent some in-depth time with them,” Boyd said. “I prayed with her, talked to them about the Lord, too. But in those times, you’ve got to do evangelism with a tremendous sensitivity. I’m not going to sit there and hammer them.”

Through the tragic circumstances, Boyd said he was surprised by how many people were smiling. Some of that was a result of Boyd’s own humor.

He also noticed a strong sense of community that is uniting those affected by the hurricane. People are inviting strangers into their houses, and all are working together to pull through.

“There are no Democrats or Republicans. I’ve not even heard that here,” Boyd said. “There are no rich or poor. There are no black or white. It’s just people.”

    About the Author

  • Tim Ellsworth

    Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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