LULING, La. (BP)–Amidst the heartbreak and destruction left by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a New Orleans-area pastor also sees revival.
Todd Hallman, pastor of First Baptist Church of Luling, said his people have been revitalized by distributing 20 tractor-trailer loads of supplies and establishing three distribution centers in the New Orleans area.
“There’s excitement in the church,” said Luling, senior pastor since June 2003. “The church has been transformed into a hospital where people’s needs are met. It has changed our mode of missions.
“In this community the word ‘Baptist’ is not a bad word; before the storm it was. We don’t smoke, drink or dance; we’ve been known for what we don’t do. No longer are we Baptists who don’t care about the community.”
First Baptist’s outreach originated with Hallman and his wife, Tabatha, who, before Katrina’s onslaught, took shelter at his parents’ home in North Carolina.
The Hallmans spent several days on the phone arranging a shipment of emergency supplies.
Working through the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia and Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven network, the couple secured a 53-foot-long tractor-trailer of supplies from Highlands Fellowship in Abingdon, Va.
When Hallman arrived at the church on Labor Day morning, the shipment was already there. It included food, water, boots, gloves, canned goods, hygiene products and other supplies.
First Baptist started distribution at 1 p.m., lining up storm victims’ cars single-file so volunteers could load material in their trunks. By 4 o’clock the truck was empty, Hallman said.
The pastor also visited the American Red Cross office in the St. Charles Parish courthouse expecting to let the agency know First Baptist had volunteers willing to help.
Instead, Hallman discovered the agency hadn’t been able to secure many supplies itself. Providing blankets to the Red Cross ultimately led to meetings with local government leaders, with Hallman telling them, “If you get trucks [with supplies], send them to us.”
Hallman registered the church as a distribution center on the Purpose Driven network’s website. Before long, between two and four semis a day began showing up, the pastor said.
Numerous Baptist churches and organizations have sent supplies and volunteers, including mission teams from Texas, North Carolina and Canada, Hallman said.
A month after the first distribution effort, Hallman said the church had given away 20 tractor-trailer loads of supplies and about $5,000 in financial aid. The latter has been handled via a partnership with Catholic Charities.
In addition, First Baptist organized distribution centers at three sister churches: First Baptist Church of Belle Chase, Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in Marerro and Barataria (La.) Baptist Church. Hallman said those sites have distributed another eight truckloads of supplies.
The Luling congregation also has been able to help people by cutting through bureaucratic red tape. Among the examples Hallman cited:
— A woman from another parish who came to the church, asking to use the phone. First Baptist church provided her funds after learning she had been denied federal aid for filling out a form incorrectly.
— A man who lost his home found a job in Atlanta but had no money to move. The church helped him purchase a small trailer to live in until the federal government can reimburse him.
— Another man asked for help getting to Birmingham, Ala. Although the Red Cross helped him find a job and temporary housing, they refused to provide travel expenses. First Baptist gave him $100.
While two people have accepted Jesus as Savior and numerous individuals have rededicated their lives to Him during recent weeks, Hallman also is excited at how First Baptist members have responded to the needs.
About half of the 250 who attend have worked in the distribution center and many have helped in other ways, such as elderly people who have manned telephones, the pastor said.
Nor did the helping hands stop with Hurricane Katrina. After Hurricane Rita smashed the southwestern Louisiana coast, the Luling church sent half a dozen pickup-pulled trailers to a community center near Lafayette.
After initially handing out food and supplies, the church has shifted to filling special needs, such as requests for refrigerators, tents, lanterns, shovels, gloves, work boots, and roof and wall repairs.
Despite the enthusiasm generated by this outpouring of support, Hallman said he expects the long-term recovery to continue for 12 to 18 months and cost up to $200,000.
Despite the challenge, Hallman believes there will be a spiritual revival not just because of what his church has done but because of what is going on throughout the New Orleans area.
The storm is going to refine what it means to be a church, Hallman said.
“The church is the people and there are many places where the structures collapse in silence,” Hallman said. “Nobody is home, the doors are locked and God seems absent. These are the types of situations that we are trying to help people sort through. God is most assuredly in control; He is present.”
And while some have preached that the storm was God’s judgment and His way of cleaning up New Orleans, Hallman doesn’t agree.
“The purpose of this storm is recognized individually,” the pastor said. “This isn’t God’s judgment as much as God’s opportunity to do some great things. The church could never get discussions going with Catholics, and now those barriers are broken down.”
Katrina also has inspired the formation of a new ministry at First Baptist. After learning that area shopping malls aren’t likely to reopen until next March, the church started a toy closet so that children will have Christmas presents this year.
It also has converted its Casters for Christ fishing ministry into a rebuilding team, since not many people are interested in fishing right now, Hallman said.
Despite the series of developments since early September, the pastor said he doesn’t deserve acclaim.
“The whole vision of what has gone on here is not my baby,” Hallman said. “It’s my wife’s. She’s a social worker. I give her the credit.”