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‘Mind-numbing’ devastation: Southern team helps in relief

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Pictures are typically worth a thousand words, but the images that the television coverage of Hurricane Katrina produced did not prepare Mary Sills for the destruction she witnessed first-hand in southern Mississippi.

Sills was one of 35 members of a team from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary that spent the school’s fall break in Ocean Springs, Miss., sharing the love of Christ by helping Hurricane Katrina victims dig out from the rubble that was once their homes.

The group included Southern Seminary students, professors and staff members and is the first of a number of teams from the seminary that plan to assist cleanup and rebuilding efforts in the Gulf region in coming months.

“Pictures from the news don’t prepare you for it,” said Sills, who serves as administrative secretary to the dean of the school of theology. “The devastation was almost mind-numbing. We were astounded by what we saw. Just when we thought we were getting used to the visual reminders, we would round a corner and see something that would stop us in our tracks.

“The bridge that was out between Ocean Springs and Biloxi was the most visible evidence of the storm. The power that it took to move tons of concrete was absolutely amazing. We were told it would take at least two years to rebuild the bridge.”

The group worked through First Baptist Church of Ocean Springs, which coordinated cleanup efforts for the homes of its members and others in the community. In all, the Southern team assisted with 21 homes during its one-week trip, mostly performing “mud-outs” — scrubbing away mud and muck, sanitizing, and removing waterlogged appliances, furniture and personal belongings from the homes.

“The houses were often left with nothing but a roof, or a part of a roof, and the studded walls,” said Stephen Drake, assistant professor of Christian ministry. “After the houses were stripped, they were sprayed with a bleach/Pine-Sol mixture to kill mold and bacteria.

“If you can imagine refrigerators and freezers packed with perishable foods sitting there for four weeks in sweltering temperatures with no power and then having a seminary student open the door, it was nauseating. In every case I saw, the door was just taped shut and the appliance was tossed on the junk pile outside.”

Tom Bohnert, a Ph.D. student and assistant to the director of Southern Seminary’s Great Commission Center, said one family was amazed when it learned that the seminary team would help clean up its home free of charge. The family was conducting its cleanup alone after one “aid” group offered its assistance for $20,000.

This incident points up the impetus for the Southern team’s work, Bohnert said: to share the love of Christ with fellow believers and to offer the eternal healing balm of the Gospel to unbelievers.

“The gentleman could not believe it when we told him we would work for free as a way of demonstrating Christ’s love to his family,” Bohnert said. “This perhaps was one of the highlights of the week.

“Despite the difficult circumstances and conditions, the team represented Christ and Southern Seminary admirably. They never lost sight of the reason we went on this trip, to demonstrate and share the love of Christ. The team sought every opportunity to engage community members in conversations to share the Gospel with them. The students kept an excellent balance between social engagement and spiritual engagement.”

Dave Theobald, a master of theology student from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, said he was struck by the diverse reactions of people in the area.

“The church members were just thrilled we could help,” Theobald said.

Many non-Christians also expressed gratitude as the teams from Southern cleared all possessions out of their houses and tore out molded drywall. Some houses were flooded by six feet of water after the hurricane, Theobald said.

“Everything was just covered in black mold,” he said, adding that relief crews “had to strip those houses down to the wood studs.”

At times the acts of service created opportunities for Theobald and his coworkers to share the Gospel.

“Some people were sober about it and open to the Gospel,” he said. “We had lots of opportunities to share the Gospel.”

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