LaPLACE, La. (BP)–For three weeks these Texans and Louisianans gave it their all, serving more than 1 million meals, distributing 11,000 evangelistic tracts and 1,200 Bibles, and seeing at least 45 new professions of faith in Christ. But as another fierce hurricane took aim at their home state, more than 300 volunteers from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention headed out of Louisiana to turn their attention toward their own families and neighbors.
“We will be transferring the operations of meal preparation over to local Baptist churches to work under the leadership of The Salvation Army,” said Bill Davenport, director of disaster relief for the SBTC.
One church in particular is taking on much of the load now that the Texans have left — First Baptist Church in LaPlace, La., about 30 miles west of New Orleans. The church, with 300 regular attenders, is playing a major role in housing volunteers involved in one of the largest emergency food distribution sites in The Salvation Army’s history.
Kari Walker, the church’s secretary, told Baptist Press the pastor and education minister were simply too busy to stop for an interview Sept. 22.
“I’ll be honest with you. Under our circumstances, all the guys you need to talk to are going a hundred miles an hour over in the warehouse and over in the relief center,” she said. “They just can’t turn loose.”
The warehouse is a 62,000-square-foot converted K-Mart building in LaPlace, which The Salvation Army leased and filled with supplies. Walker said it is being used for relief needs for southern and southeastern Louisiana and is the largest such Salvation Army facility in the region.
“They intend apparently to establish quite a long-term presence here beyond Katrina relief,” Walker said of The Salvation Army. “They signed a three-year lease on the warehouse facility with an option to renew.”
Meanwhile, how is First Baptist LaPlace going to fill the void left by the army of Texas Baptists?
Walker said she asked that question of Pastor Bobby Burt and he said, “We’re going to step out on faith and trust in the Lord. That’s the only way it’s going to happen.”
At least three-fourths of the congregation is helping in some way with hurricane relief efforts in the area, Walker said. The church needs at least 30 more volunteers to take the place of the Texans, she said. They had at least 15 people from the church and the community step up immediately, but more are needed.
“We’re going to get it done. We’re going to trust that it’s all going to get done,” Walker said.
“The people [from other states] on the disaster relief teams can’t even do laundry. We don’t have laundry facilities at the church, so they leave bags of dirty laundry with their names on it out in the welcome center,” she said. “Folks just simply stop by during day, pick it up, take it home, wash it and bring it back.”
A different team of church members cooks a hot meal for the workers every night, and they prepare a continental-style breakfast each morning.
“[The workers] kind of tend to take care of themselves in the morning with things we provide because the first crew leaves at 3:30 in the morning,” said Walker, who also chairs the food services committee. “But at night we feed them a hot meal.”
The church has asked people to make desserts to go along with the meals that are cooked each evening, and though the request was for 10 desserts a day, Walker said she is getting at least 20 each day.
Other church volunteers are out working with the relief teams and with The Salvation Army teams that go out each day, she said. They’re unloading trucks, distributing food and accomplishing different tasks.
“Everybody is doing something in some kind of way,” she told BP. “And so is the community. We’re getting a remarkable response from the community as people hear what the church is doing and the fact that so many people are staying here. There’s a local bank and they’re bringing in eight cakes a day by themselves. The local country club has locker room facilities with showers, and that’s a pretty high-ticket item. They’ve just opened their doors, and our guys go there to take showers at night.
“… It’s just the sort of response you’d hope you’d see. After a disaster, it’s exactly what you’d hope for and you’d like to see happen, and it’s happening,” Walker said.
The church, which has been fortunate to maintain clean water and electricity almost without interruption since Katrina hit, hosted a group of New Orleans-area pastors Sept. 21 as they met to plot their next steps in finding alternate places to worship and care for their members. They decided to meet weekly at First Baptist LaPlace to fine-tune some of the decisions they’ve made, Walker said.
“It’s obviously a work in progress, and things will be adjusted as we continue and see what’s necessary,” she added.
As the town of LaPlace, with 50,000 residents and another 10,000 to 20,000 evacuees, recovers from Katrina, support from believers elsewhere in the nation will continue to be needed, Walker said.
“We covet their prayers. I was amazed to find that after the hurricanes hit the Florida coast last summer they just finished putting the bridges back together and opening the roads in July — a full year later,” Walker said. “I think so many people think two or three weeks later it’s out of the news … right? And they don’t realize we’re just getting started and it’s going to be a months-long project. So we ask for people to please continue to pray for the safety of those who have left their homes and families and lives to come here and help us.”
As for the volunteers from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, their plan is to relocate to College Station, Texas, where they will continue more of the same work in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita.
Tim McKeown, the public information officer for the SBTC disaster relief in Louisiana, told Baptist Press the Texans are awaiting a Salvation Army kitchen that is expected to arrive from New York sometime after Rita’s landfall.
Until then, McKeown said he is confident Davenport, the disaster relief director, will enlist what he affectionately calls the “Baptist Bologna Brigade” to make sandwiches. The brigade was extremely effective in Louisiana, he said, making up to 10,000 sandwiches a day.