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Philly volunteers spread brotherly love in Louisiana

NORTH WALES, Pa. (BP)–The stench of rotting fish across the grass and parking lot of First Baptist Church in Slidell, La., somehow was tolerable -– even after the rigors of a 24-hour drive.

But the tragedy that these Pennsylvania volunteers from metro Philadelphia were seeing was overwhelming.

Although First Baptist Slidell -– two miles from Lake Ponchartrain –- sustained four feet of flooding from Hurricane Katrina in some of its facilities, the church was ministering in its stricken community with the help of Southern Baptist volunteers like the dozen members of Keystone Community Fellowship and five from Riverside Community Church, both suburban Philadelphia church starts that target people in the postmodern generation.

The Philadelphia-based group drove to Louisiana in five SUVs; two were packed with people, one was stuffed with supplies, and two pulled trailers loaded with hastily gathered water, diapers, cleaning supplies and more.

They knew to be flexible; the stench they could deal with. But the scope of the tragedy left the Philadelphians intent on returning to Louisiana, and soon.

“It’s like the story of the sand dollar,” said Robert Cook, a house painter, referring to an oft-told fable of a man throwing sand dollars back into the ocean. “We can’t help all the people who lived through this, but we can help ‘this one.’”

The relief effort started with a phone call to Keystone pastor John Cope from Southern Baptist Craig Miller, who heads a first responder ministry he calls Global Impact. Cope then sent out an e-mail to his church members to see who would be able to leave for New Orleans in five days and who would be able to donate items for distribution to Katrina victims.

“I just sensed in my spirit we needed to go help,” Cope said. “We’re a new church start, and I want us to be doers. … I wanted our people to get their hands dirty.”

He got what he wanted.

“We kind of expected the worst, so in many ways we were prepared,” said Jessica Hegedus, 30, a mother of two who was on her first missions trip. “But to see how many people were affected, how large the problem was, that was overwhelming.”

The Philly volunteers spent their first day dealing with muck at First Baptist Slidell followed by three days of distributing food, water and other essential items in an 80-mile radius of Slidell. “Everyone was pretty much running on adrenalin -– we just wanted to do as much as we could as fast as we could,” Hegedus said.

At the church, the Philly crew shoveled six inches of sludge off the carpet in a modular building behind the worship center. Then they tore out sheetrock blanketed by mold up to the four-foot-high floodwater line and they discarded soggy books and other study materials in what had been a classroom, along with carpet and furniture that couldn’t be salvaged.

It all went to a mound in the parking lot, where a bulldozer took monster-sized bites from the trash heap and dropped it into industrial-size garbage dumpsters.

“We didn’t think it was going to end,” Cook said. “We were knee-deep in muck and mold and no power and fish everywhere and it smelled bad…. But what we were doing was getting things ready so the building could be repaired for relief crews to stay there over the next year. We were kind of paving the way, and that was good to hear, because it was a terrible job.”

The next three days, the Philly volunteers loaded their SUVs three times each day with food, water, diapers and cleaning supplies from tractor-trailers at the Slidell airport, then drove to churches that had begun to serve as distribution centers to people in the surrounding hurricane-damaged neighborhoods. Drive-through lines often were set up to help as many people as possible as fast as possible.

“We wanted the people to see the church was meeting their needs, not the government,” Cope said. “Most of the churches were crippled. They’re not dead but their offerings last Sunday were $22, $39 and the like. They were so grateful for what we brought -– and that we brought it -– and so eager to get out into their community and share God’s love, even though their homes were devastated too.”

Some people were spending 10 hours a day at their church, followed by several more hours working on their own homes, Cope added.

“We were able to be a part of something that will touch so many people,” Hegedus said. “Hopefully with the distribution centers we set up at the churches, they will be able to reach so many more people than they would otherwise.”

To see two women from obviously different economic backgrounds digging through the same box of clothes was one of the sights that impacted her the most, Hegedus said.

“It brought home the fact that this tragedy affected everyone,” she said. “… Another thing we kept seeing all week was that people weren’t being greedy. They didn’t want to take from anybody else.

“It’s the people in the rural areas who are really suffering,” Hegedus said. “One guy made a lean-to for his family between two trees; he expects to live like that until Christmas.” Some had been told they wouldn’t get electricity until November, she said.

For the Philly volunteers, there was little time to think of rest.

“We were eating MREs because we didn’t want to stop,” Cook said. “They’re pretty good, except for the chicken breast. It’s real cool. You add water and it starts heating up…. With the MREs we were able to make three [trips into the communities] each day; that helped a lot of people.”

Many times they were the first vehicles into an area since the hurricane.

“Some people hadn’t been contacted by any relief organization,” Hegedus said. “To see it was three weeks after the fact and nobody had contacted them, that we didn’t expect.”

“The kids would see us and start running,” Cook said. “We knew people were eating that night because we brought them food. That was a good feeling.

“They were just, like, overwhelmed,” Cook continued. “There was too much heartache here and too much loss, but knowing we were helping, that was a good thing. One woman asked for a broom, and when we gave it to her, she just started bawling. Three of our students prayed with her. On one stop, there were about 30 kids playing with sticks; that’s all they had. We had one soccer ball. Seeing how much it meant to them, we made sure we had toys with us every stop after that.”

Cook said he learned during the mission trip what “giving thanks in all situations” means.

“The [church] people, they always wanted to pray with us,” he said. “They had smiles on their faces, which blew me away. We get upset if the line at the grocery store is too long, but these people, who have nothing, they showed me no matter what, I can praise God instead of getting angry.

“That’s where I saw God -– in people’s hearts and faces,” Cook continued. “They told me you don’t need to have a building to have church. You don’t need to have all that stuff because we’re the church. If you were there, you’d know what I am talking about.”

Cook said he stayed in bed for two days after his 24-hour road trip back to metro Philadelphia. “I couldn’t function,” he said. “I was sick that I wasn’t there…. We didn’t talk to them about Jesus. We showed them.”

He’s going back, within two weeks, said Cook, who is self-employed. He’s gathering tools and equipment to take with him and has plans to help rebuild churches when he’s not out distributing relief supplies.

Hegedus said she too is going back, probably over Thanksgiving with youth from the church.

Cope said Keystone members will return several times over the next year and to partner with a rebuilding church.

“The greatest need of the churches there is hands, feet,” Cope said. “Our people got tired, exhausted, sweaty, edgy at times, but that’s OK. We came down to do whatever was needed; we’re here to be servants.

“I see devastation but I see God’s hand in it,” the pastor continued. “God’s been saying He wants us to get outside our walls, and we saw churches with their walls down.”

Cope’s advice: “You’ve got to network. Don’t just go blind. We saw a church that had been there two days without doing anything…. Get on [the North American Mission Board’s] website; go through your local state convention office. Don’t go alone…. There was tons of clothing and tons of water. Partner with a [specific] church; find out what they need and take that with you.”

Hegedus’ advice: “Pray and make sure going there is something God wants you to do. It can be very emotional if you’re not prepared…. You’re going to see people at their very worst; you need to be the most merciful you can possibly be. Be prepared for the worst; if it’s any better than that, it makes it that much easier…. If it’s something God has called you to do, you just have to do it.”

Cook’s advice: “They don’t need more supplies; they need people with trailers to distribute. I wish we could all go down there and do something. If each person gave a week, what a difference it would make.

“We got more out of it than they did,” he added.