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Katrina pushes Gulfport, Miss., church & pastor to rethink, to find new vision

GULFPORT, Miss., (BP)–One year before Hurricane Katrina’s 28-foot surge torpedoed the walls of First Baptist Church in Gulfport, Miss., members decided to increase the church’s flood insurance by $2.5 million.

“That was God’s grace preparing us 12 months before Katrina ever came into existence,” Chuck Register, First Baptist’s pastor of six years, said.

“Reminders of God’s grace and embracing humility,” Register added, “are two powerful lessons God taught me through that storm.”

Citing another evidence of God’s grace, Register said the church staff was on a retreat four months before Katrina struck, where “we asked the question and dealt only with the question: ‘How would we do church if we did not have a facility?’” Register recalled.

It wasn’t in anticipation of an intense hurricane season, but because the Mississippi coast was in a “condo craze,” Register said. The staff was preparing for the possibility that some entity might make a financial offer for the property that the church couldn’t refuse.

“The plan we laid out in that staff retreat,” he said, “is the plan we implemented starting last August” after Katrina struck.

The first choice for a substitute place of worship was Gulfport High School, but the public school system had been closed to churches using school facilities. After Katrina struck, however, all it took was a phone call to gain access to the 700-seat auditorium, Register said.

“God also gave us 6,300 square feet of office space. The high school is right out the back door,” the pastor noted, adding that First Baptist’s student pastor now has an open door right into the school. The office space also doubles for some church educational facilities.

Of his lesson in humility, Register said, “Pastors, by philosophy, makeup and giftedness are givers. We’re usually very lousy receivers. God taught me I must be a receiver of ministry from other people. I can’t always be the fixer. Right now, I’m part of the group that needs fixing.”

Despite trying circumstances, Register said First Baptist is working in conjunction with North Carolina Baptist Men to transform the church’s former site into housing for 100 volunteers.

Concerning First Baptist’s future facilities, the church has a “letter of intent” from the owner of 34 acres one mile north of Interstate 10. Register said the site “is going to be an outstanding location” because it’s adjacent to Gulfport’s newest residential corridor.

“What excites us about this property is that before Katrina we could never really assist evacuees with housing. So, in the first phase of construction, we’re going to build a recreational facility that will also be an evacuation response center for people displaced by the three to four evacuation orders we have every storm season for some portion of our county. We want to seize opportunities to minister during times of crisis.”

Register had raised the idea of church relocation about four and a half years ago, but members were not receptive.

“About two months before Katrina hit, a layman on our leadership team asked, ‘Why have we abandoned the idea of relocation?’” Register said. A week prior to Katrina, church relocation was the topic of a deacons’ meeting. Following Katrina, members registered an 86 percent favorable vote for relocation.

“It’s still been a difficult and emotional decision because our folks — their entire world has changed,” Register said.

With houses destroyed and possessions lost, with job security in question and with families separated, members “have looked to the church as that one place where there’s a foundation where the world was not spinning and is not in the midst of a tempest,” Register said. “But, having lost our facility, we were just another prime example of complete, total change in their lives.” Members realize “we can’t turn the hands of the clock back to Aug. 28, go back downtown and have church the way we’ve always had it.

“For the most part, our congregation has adapted well” to changes dictated by the storm, one of which is the addition of small group meetings, the pastor said. Adding small group meetings is not only a necessity, it reflects a change in ministry philosophy.

The storm gave the congregation “a chance to reflect on ‘What is the church?’” Register said. “For too long in Southern Baptist life we have said with our mind, ‘Well, the church is the congregation, it’s the family of faith, it’s a group of baptized believers.’ But in actuality, we’ve practiced that the church is brick and mortar and columns and facilities.

“We’ve had the opportunity to discover that the church is not a building located at 14th Street and 22nd Avenue for the last 110 years. It is the body of Christ.”

Referring to what he sees as the three primary purposes of the church — worship, fellowship and discipleship -– Register noted, “These purposes are not impacted by location except where the people happen to be gathered for these purposes.”

Katrina “helped me reflect on a lot of things,” the pastor continued, including how Southern Baptists do church. “We’ve been very effective in enrolling and attending, studying and teaching. But I’m not sure that Southern Baptists have been extremely effective in life transformation.

“Because of Katrina, I’ve come to understand life transformation differently than as the typical downtown First Baptist church has been embracing it. In life transformation as a Christian, we should not be as consumed with location, style and model as we should be with ‘I want to be in the presence of my Lord, totally submissive to what He is saying to my life, and totally pliable to His hands that are molding and shaping me.’”

Register told Baptist Press he is “deeply grateful for Southern Baptist volunteers, without whose help we’d be at least four months behind in our recovery.”

“Southern Baptists also have given $22 million toward relief efforts, and that astounds me,” he said.

Register believes, however, that Southern Baptists need to do something else with regard to disaster relief and recovery: “In the last few months, because of Katrina, Southern Baptists for the first time on a wide scale have gotten a vision of what ministry evangelism can really be.

“Because we have the greatest evangelistic opportunity in the history of this nation unfolding right now and for the next three to five years on the Mississippi and Louisiana Gulf Coasts and in New Orleans, we’ve got to have coming out of this first year after Katrina a holistic, top-down strategy — all the way from our North American Mission Board to our local churches — where everyone is working together.

“I’ve been asking for and writing for and crying for a strategy meeting where the top decision-makers at NAMB can come together with our state execs and a sampling of our DOMs and pastors in planning a holistic, unified, strike zone strategy for recovery so no one falls through any gaps. I’d be very pleased for that kind of meeting to occur,” Register said.

“God has positioned us perfectly for our next chapter of history, and only God can solve these big issues we’re facing,” the pastor said. “But for now, He’s doing it in an amazing fashion.”

    About the Author

  • Norm Miller