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Miss. church’s members stay after Katrina to rebuild town

LAKESHORE, Miss. (BP)–When Hurricane Katrina struck last August, Lakeshore Baptist Church in Mississippi relocated, but not because members voted.

Katrina’s winds and waves smashed the wood-frame structure. What wasn’t blown away floated away from the site about a mile from Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. Members recovered the pulpit, a few lumber scraps and the steeple.

Working on his doctoral degree at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Lakeshore’s pastor, Don Elbourne, relinquished his studies to coordinate disaster relief efforts in the predominantly Catholic neighborhood. The Southern Baptist Convention, the North American Mission Board, the Mississippi Baptist Convention, the Gulf Coast Baptist Association and countless Southern Baptist volunteers from 38 states have rallied with Elbourne and Lakeshore’s members to turn the devastated area in Katrina’s path into a crossroads of crisis and Christ-likeness.

The church site looks like a military supply depot — there’s a Quonset hut structure for a church building; a tent village and small bunkhouses for volunteers; a screened-in kitchen and mess hall on a concrete slab foundation, where a neighbor’s house once stood; shower trailers; and a large tent stocked with canned goods, clothing and bottled water. About 300 people, some of whom must walk for miles, frequent the compound daily for life’s necessities.

“I want to thank you for everything,” said local resident Pam Ramage, who, with her cart of sundries in tow, stopped to talk with Elbourne.

“We lost our home. Never found it. It’s gone. We were so down because when you lose everything it takes a while to get over it,” added Ramage, formerly of Heron Bay, a waterfront community Katrina obliterated.

“You’ve fed me. You’ve clothed me. And you’ve lifted my spirits I don’t know how many times. And I want to thank you,” Ramage told Elbourne. “Everybody I see I want to hug their necks and say, ‘Thank you, God.’”

“If it hadn’t have been for the church groups, we’d still be stuck at day one after the hurricane. It’s just a God-send for all of these people to give up their vacations, their time off. And the college kids coming down, you know, it just makes you so close to God because you know he’s there and He’s helping us,” Ramage said, tearfully.

Elbourne said volunteer teams are rehabbing local houses that withstood Katrina’s wrath by gutting and disinfecting them. Then, they follow by roofing, plumbing, wiring, sheet-rocking and painting the homes. Elbourne expects this kind of work will continue for at least two years.

A sawmill donated by Sierra First Baptist Church in Alta, Calif., provides lumber to rebuild some houses from the ground up. Volunteers already used such lumber to build a house for a Lakeshore member who opted not to go back to driving his 18-wheeler, but instead to stay in the area helping at the sawmill. Volunteers also used sawmill lumber to construct interior walls for the church sanctuary, a mostly metal structure that went up in less than a week. “We wanted to put up something quick that didn’t exhaust our volunteer resources, because I just couldn’t bring myself to spend too much of those resources on the church property when other people are still living in tents,” said Elbourne, noting that all of Lakeshore’s members lost their homes.

Concerning the sawmill, “The problem is not finding enough trees to mill,” Elbourne said. “We’ve got enough trees to run that saw mill constantly. What we need are the volunteers to do it.”

Scott Saunders, pastor of Sierra First Baptist, told Baptist Press his church’s service to Lakeshore was a debt repayment, of sorts. More than 30 years ago, volunteers from Mississippi traveled to California to construct Sierra’s building. In return, the church has committed to send a team of volunteers to Lakeshore once a month for a year. The church has also loaned Lakeshore the use of three vans.

Elbourne is quick to note not only the generosity of churches, but also how God uses it in astonishingly timely ways. Just after volunteers completed Lakeshore’s makeshift sanctuary, Elbourne and a Lakeshore member were standing in the building, scratching their heads in ignorance about how to install the electrical wiring.

In those very moments, a man, a stranger, walked in, introduced himself, and apologized for interrupting, saying he was from another town and wanted to donate his time and professional expertise. The man is an electrical engineer.

On another day, Elbourne said a group of college-aged volunteers who had been painting came to him needing more paint rollers, but Elbourne had none. “Just then,” said Elbourne, “a delivery truck pulls up, and the driver brings me a box. I sign for it and open it. It was a box of paint rollers.”

Elbourne is reflective on the ministry and his personal walk with God. Citing the debate over whether God caused the hurricane or simply allowed it to happen, Elbourne said, “If God was not completely in control of Katrina, I couldn’t have made it. To think that God simply steps back and allows things to happen would’ve been too much for me to move forward in. But that solid confidence that He is completely in control gives me the confidence to move forward in the knowledge that His ultimate purposes will be seen.”

The depth of Elbourne’s Scripture reading and singing of hymns in church “are so much richer” now, he added.

“Psalm 46, that the Lord is my refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble -– that’s not just a metaphor any more; it’s a firm reality. Even the metaphors we sing: ‘My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. All other ground is sinking sand’ –- [that’s a] firm reality,” he said.

The text for Lakeshore’s first worship service after the storm, Elbourne said, was from Habakkuk chapter three –- a passage that details the absence of life’s provisions. “‘But I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.’ We could say that before. But when you’re standing there with nothing, that confidence in God is very strong.”

Just days after the storm, Elbourne stood on the church site, surveying the rubble of what remained.

“The pulpit was stuck in the woods to my left, the roof line of another destroyed building to my right, the piano busted up in the woods in front of me -– nothing was where it used to be. But the assurance of God had not moved. He’s still in heaven, ruling, reigning, governing the universe according to His plan.

“And to go to bed at night with so many things still needing to be done, and to be able to say, ‘God, I’m glad I’m not you’ –- that’s a comforting thing to me,” Elbourne said.

Elbourne suggested that those interested in volunteering at Lakeshore, Miss., visit www.rebuildlakeshore.com.

    About the Author

  • Norm Miller