PASCAGOULA, Miss. (BP)–Southern Baptists along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast say the response of Christians from around the nation has inspired them in their struggle to recover from Hurricane Katrina damage.
The Jackson County Baptist Association in southeastern Mississippi, for example, processed more than 3,000 volunteers in the two months following Hurricane Katrina. The volunteers have removed mud and debris from 600 homes in Pascagoula and elsewhere in the area.
“It gives us a great deal of encouragement and emotional energy to go on,” said Tom Miller, associate missions director for the Jackson County association. “The fact people care and come and assist in demolition and repair work gives you a boost.”
“We’ve been blessed by all the volunteers,” said Brian Rushing, associate pastor of First Baptist Church in Bay St. Louis. People from eight different states have cleaned up homes, cleared away trees and other debris, and helped renovate First Baptist’s building in recent weeks.
“It gives people hope, a little bit of encouragement and shows them what it means to be a Christian and love other people,” Rushing said. “We’ve heard over and over again [from residents], ‘If it weren’t for the church, we wouldn’t have any help.’”
Both areas suffered extensive damage.
In Jackson County, at the southeastern edge of the state, 70 percent of the population of 132,000 was affected by the storm, Miller said. Twenty-seven of the Baptist association’s 43 churches sustained damage, with 10 of the 27 covered by water as deep as six feet.
The flooded churches are being mudded out, with all floor coverings ripped out, walls stripped down to the studs and treated for mold and mildew.
The storm losses are serious, since 70 percent of the association’s churches have 100 members or less, Miller said. He said many are currently meeting in fellowship halls, cafeterias, on porches or in tents.
“A couple may not exist after the storm,” Miller said. “There’s so much required and they only have 20 to 25 members. They may reincorporate with another church.”
Miller’s own experience illustrates the challenge facing churches in the association. The interim pastor of Four Mile Creek Baptist Church in nearby Escatawpa, Miller said pre-hurricane Sunday School attendance of 100 to 125 has dropped in half.
“People are out trying to get their houses back together,” Miller said. “A lot of people are displaced. They’re staying with family in other locations 20 to 30 miles away. They come down to work on their home and then go back.”
In addition, no offerings were taken for three weeks after the storm. Once they resumed, the offerings reached only 25 percent of past levels, Miller said. Four Mile Creek sustained $83,000 in roof damage, which is being covered by insurance, but Miller said there is no coverage for most other losses.
“The state convention has helped with pastors’ salaries,” Miller said. “Every pastor has received emergency assistance, but that only replaces a portion of what was lost.”
Still, Southern Baptists are doing their best to help the association recover. Thus far, it has formed partnerships with the South Carolina and Kentucky Baptist conventions and Georgia’s Chattahoochee Baptist Association.
The association is open to multiple partnerships, Miller said, whether it is with the association or individual churches. He suggested that churches consider helping with specific tasks, such as replacing pews, carpeting or sheet rock.
“Everyone working together can make it easier on the individual [church],” Miller said. “We’re in need of raw materials, such as sheet rock and carpeting. Skilled labor is at a premium. Qualified, licensed electricians, plumbers and folks like that can be crew leaders. And the city will allow them to work off a license from out of state.”
In Bay St. Louis, a town of 8,200 about 40 miles west of Biloxi, Rushing said all the homes along the beach and two blocks inland have been flattened. A number of residents are living in tents, erected on the slab they now call home, the associate pastor said.
On Oct. 24 a federal emergency crew delivered the trailer Rushing now calls home. He and pastor Al Green also lost all their Bibles, commentaries and study resources for preparing sermons.
Eight weeks after the storm, no grocery stores have reopened, meaning the Red Cross is still serving up to 7,000 meals a day -– with help from the Georgia Baptist Convention’s disaster relief team, Rushing said.
This situation is why the assistance from other states has been so valuable, Rushing said. Among the many churches helping First Baptist of late were CrossWay Baptist Church of Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Crestwood Baptist Church of Crestwood, Ky.
The week of Oct. 17, pastor Tony Long of CrossWay Baptist visited pastors in his area and collected enough books to assemble a starter library for the First Baptist’s staff. In addition, two men from the Tennessee church installed two showers, with two more planned, in an old educational building to allow relief workers to clean up at the end of the day.
Crestwood Baptist sent a team of 39 volunteers to Bay St. Louis to mud out homes and do clean up and repairs both at the church and in the community.
Both churches have arranged a number of repeat trips to First Baptist, the kind of long-term assistance that excites Rushing.
“A number of churches and associations are partnering with us,” Rushing said. “They’ve said, ‘We want to see your community rebuilt. We’re excited about the churches who said, ‘We’re in this for the long haul.’”
The assistance from SBC churches is helping more than First Baptist, the associate pastor said. Because so many volunteers came to the southwestern Mississippi town, the church set up a program for home cleanup and repairs.
By Oct. 25 the church had completed the first 150 of 300 work orders, but additional requests for help have been coming as more residents learn about the program, Rushing said.
“The most exciting thing to me is we’ve been in homes of people who never would have invited us into their homes in the past,” Rushing said. “This is a very liberal community with a lot of alternative lifestyles, but people are saying, ‘Please come in and help me.’ God has allowed us opportunities to rebuild homes and give them help.”
Rushing said he expects the long-term impact of the disaster to strengthen First Baptist and other churches in the Bay St. Louis area.
No matter what happens, though, he will always remember seeing the body of Christ respond to overwhelming needs in his town.
“This shows what it means to be a Christian and show people love,” Rushing said.