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Katrina evacuees finds churches & members ready to help

JACKSON, Miss. (BP)–Hurricane Katrina washed away denominational barriers as the sweeping current of human needs swells in the Jackson, Miss., area.

According to local officials, the 600,000-population metro area has jumped to 1.2 million in the wake of Katrina’s wrath. And Southern Baptists, Pentecostals and Catholics are working together in the name of Christ to stem the tide of pain and loss.

Broadmoor Baptist Church’s Christian Life Center, located in suburban Jackson, was abuzz Sunday night, Sept. 4, with the shrieks of children playing, adults jabbering and televisions blaring. But Ann Southerland maintained a calm demeanor and broad smile when the telephone rang, interrupting her conversation with a family checking into the center.

Southerland is a member of First Baptist Church in Jackson and also a Red Cross volunteer who trained with members of Broadmoor in disaster relief shortly after Hurricane Ivan hit the Gulf last year.

“Since I was trained with Broadmoor members, they sort-of adopted me to their relief center,” Southerland told Baptist Press.

“Do you have any clothing or basic foodstuffs?” one woman asked Southerland. “We don’t know how long we’re going to be here. Do you have any commodities we could have? We left Metarie [La.] without anything. What about food staples like rice or potatoes or canned goods we could have? Me and my husband are on Social Security and our checks were mailed to our home, but we have no way of getting there now. My husband’s over in Lafayette [La.] with our older daughter,” the woman related, hardly taking a breath.

Southerland smiled as she dropped toothpaste, shampoo and other personal care items into a plastic bag for the woman.

Helping Southerland on the 6 p.m. to midnight shift was Charles Zundel, a member of a nearby Catholic church. “At a time like this, it just doesn’t matter,” said Zundel, referring to differing church memberships. Zundel’s wife is a member of Broadmoor.

In the adjacent gym, where cots and inflatable mattresses dot the floor, new sheets billow as Al Jernigan and Becky Greenleaf prepare the beds for new arrivals. Both are members of Colonial Heights Baptist Church in Jackson.

“Any way Christians can minister — I think that’s what we’re called to do. We’re called to stop doing what we think is important and to take care of the other more pressing needs for these people.”

Broadmoor’s efforts also helped the neighboring Parkway Pentecostal Church when that church sent two 50-passenger buses to New Orleans to pick up 100 Superdome refugees.

Red Cross officials in Jackson called Broadmoor asking if the shelter had any spare disaster relief supplies. As it happened, Broadmoor had two tractor-trailer loads of supplies, several hundred pounds of donated clothing, and plenty of food.

Parkway church had stepped out in faith by sending the buses, but had no provisions for the 100 evacuees who would be arriving there. So, Broadmoor sent more than enough supplies for the evacuees to have clean clothes and a hot meal after the trip from New Orleans.

Meanwhile, at the downtown Jackson site of First Baptist Church’s shelter, Richard Bush, a student from the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, checks the bandage on Nancy Whitehead’s hand. Whitehead is well past retirement age, and had fled to Jackson from Slidell, La., one of the areas hardest hit by Katrina.

“I came up here to help out where I can,” Bush said. “And not just medical stuff, but I’ve been moving bottles of water and everything else.”

Bush said he stepped forward because of “God and His guidance. You’re always blessed when you help other people. I guess that’s the reward you get for following God’s lead.”

Officials at the health and human services center of Jackson called and asked if First Baptist would be willing to be a special needs facility, Bush explained, saying the elderly and infirm who were evacuated from nursing homes along the Gulf Coast were in another Jackson facility that had no power and, thus, no air conditioning. So First Baptist swung into action. And so did Bush.

First Baptist members Don and Sara Williams came to the shelter with their three children, ages 11, 13 and 15. “We want to show our children how to be Christ to others,” Sara said.

“They live in a culture of ‘me,’” Don added. “And this is an opportunity for them to witness service in Christ’s name.” Don noted all three children were helping in the shelter, one sorting and folding the mountains of donated clothes and two playing in the game room with evacuees’ children.

“We’re all getting to see the reality of our faith in human terms, and to see how a smile, a touch or some kind words can really make a difference,” Don said. “This sort of thing almost makes you feel guilty about feeling so good to serve others in need,” he added.

Grace Williams, 15, told Baptist Press, “I love helping” as she flipped the tag in a shirt to check its size.

“I’ve known the Lord officially or whatever since I was 6. But I rededicated my life to Him last year for, like, seriously. My help is a result of that. This is like a coming back kind of thing.”

Grace wants to encourage other teens to get involved, saying, “It’s very rewarding to help other people.” Mentioning, for example, an 8-year-old girl who’d worn the same dress for a week, Grace said it was fun “to help that little girl find some new clothes.”

“There are not many people your age up here,” said Jean Young, who also was folding clothes and affirming her young helper’s initiative.

Young said one of the shelter residents was in her Sunday School class, angry and asking, “How could a loving God do this?”

“Sometimes the good have to suffer with the bad. And in the process of that we grow closer to God. And hopefully in that process we can influence others to come to know God in the way that we do,” Young said.

“As Christians, we know the answer to that. But we can’t tell [non-Christian evacuees] that because they won’t understand it,” Young said. “The only way we can do it is to show it,” she said of God’s love.

“The nation is watching to see if those of us in the Bible belt will turn our backs on these people,” Young said. “God expects us to step up to the plate, and this is the time to do it. He’s the only one who knows who will … come to know Him after the very tragic and painful things that have happened to them.”

First Baptist member Rebecca James, the district health officer for the Mississippi Department of Health, stopped by First Baptist’s shelter to observe all the good things she’d heard about.

Recounting that the nurses in a shelter at the Lincoln County juvenile center in Brookhaven, Miss., were cooking, washing clothes and doing all other cleaning in addition to providing healthcare for the refugees, James said the number of volunteers at First Baptist’s shelter allowed the volunteer medical professionals to give healthcare to the evacuees.

“If you just let Baptists know you need help, they’ll pile in and do it,” she said. “And I’m sure if Baptists in the Brookhaven area knew of the needs at the juvenile center, they’d pile in and help there too.”

Lee Thigpen, director of the shelter at First Baptist, estimated the shelter had aided as many as 200 people in four days.

“We’ve got teams of nurses flying in from Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas. We’ve gotten truckloads of supplies from as far away as North Carolina. And from Texas we’re expecting 10 nurses and a nurse practitioner who’ve committed to stay here 10 days.”

Choking back the tears, Thigpen said many of the shelter’s residents attended the Sunday morning worship service at First Baptist.

“At the end of the service, many of them came down front. All they wanted was a hug.”

    About the Author

  • Norm Miller