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Seminarians tear out sheetrock, pull up carpet, share their faith

EDITORS’ NOTE: This story follows a Sept. 19 story in Baptist Press about a team of volunteers from Southeastern Seminary who traveled to Slidell, La., for disaster relief ministry.

SLIDELL, La. (BP)–Spending a week of eight- to 10-hour days in the Louisiana heat gutting out the ruined furnishings of muddy, moldy, hurricane-ravaged homes is not many students’ idea of how to spend a week from campus.

Yet, that’s exactly what a team of nine Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary students did.

“It was just the most unbelievable experience,” student David Hecht said. “I would not have missed this opportunity.”

SEBTS faculty member Frank Catanzaro, who led the Sept. 12-19 venture, said, “It was what I expected it to be and a whole lot more. I think everyone would agree this was one of the best trips we’ve ever been a part of.”

The students’ work -– tearing out sheetrock, pulling up carpet and removing the interior furnishings of houses that only days earlier had six feet of standing water in them -– was demanding and exhausting. For a week, they slept in the fellowship hall of Grace Memorial Baptist Church in Slidell, La., a bedroom community near New Orleans. They showered in disaster relief trailers in the church’s parking lot.

Their days began early and ended late after they had unloaded 18-wheeler trucks filled with donated goods and assisted local residents in carrying supplies to their cars.

So what possible reason could the team, totaling 11 people in all, have for agreeing that the trip was well worth their time and effort? Their answer is that God, too, was at work in Slidell that week.

The team saw five people trust Christ as Lord and Savior and they were able to share the Gospel with more than 100 other people during their time there.

Student Rush Witt said the group’s acts of service earned them the right to share the Gospel with people on several occasions. The work they did on a home in one day would have taken homeowners weeks to do on their own.

“It’s not often that you get to see people genuinely heartbrokenly appreciative of what you did for them -– I mean, in tears,” Witt said. “They’ve lost everything. They’re dealing with all of that and then along come these 11 people who … in six hours have it all done.”

The first two homeowners that the group helped were believers, members of Grace Memorial, a church in which Catanzaro formerly served on staff as associate pastor.

“Both men were in tears,” Hecht said. “They were just so overwhelmed at the outpouring of love.”

The last homeowner the group helped was a Roman Catholic, and Witt found that he was willing to listen to the Gospel message after the team had worked on his home.

“I told him, ‘It would be a great dishonor to you for us to come all this way to help you and not share with you why we’re here,’” Witt said. “We had earned an opportunity to share the Gospel.”

Although that particular gentleman did not receive Christ, the team hopes their work on his house will cause him to think more about the message they brought.

“We are aliens and strangers, and we are supposed to be different,” student Scott Sutton said. “And doing that [kind of work] –- that’s not normal to do -– to take a week out of your life and to just ride around and see if somebody needs help. I mean, I know I would be like, ‘Something’s up. You don’t want to do all this manual labor for free. There’s a catch.’ But obviously, it’s not a catch. I mean, the catch is the love of God. There is no catch, that’s it right there. And that’s the difference.”

However, Witt pointed out that believers have both an opportunity and an obligation to evangelize, whether they are in hurricane-battered Louisiana or back on campus in Wake Forest, N.C.

“We didn’t do any evangelism there that can’t be done [from the campus],” Witt added. “We just had a hurricane to start the conversation.”

The team of Southeastern students was not the only group of Southern Baptists helping that week in Slidell. Also at Grace Memorial, a headquarters for disaster relief, were Baptists from Tennessee and Virginia who served 10,000 meals each day to hurricane victims and gave out canned goods and medical supplies. With the help of Red Cross volunteers, they turned the Grace Memorial parking lot into “a sea of donated clothes” available for disaster victims to choose from 24 hours a day.

“It was really an awe-inspiring thing,” Witt said. “It made you really proud to be a Baptist.”

Hecht said, “It was the fullness of the body of Christ in all of its glory, performing the work of the Lord. I’ve never seen such a complete picture of the body of Christ. Everyone had a role, from children and youth to senior adults.”

“It was really the most incredible experience I’ve ever had of working with Baptists from other states -– like I said, the body of Christ in all of its glory.”

Now that they have returned home, however, some members of the team find themselves wishing that they could still be helping the people they met in Louisiana.

“You leave and you’re thinking, ‘Those people are still there,’” Sutton said. “They’re still hurting. They still have no house. They’re still getting food right now at that place. I want to be back there.

“I’d rather be there right now than right here. It’s hard. It’s difficult to think about those people still there. Their houses still need to be cleaned up. There are still opportunities to minister.”

Sutton said he was especially struck by the magnitude of work yet to be done when he realized that for all of the group’s efforts, they left hundreds of houses still in need of repair for every one that they cleaned out.

“You finish a house, you spend a day and a half cleaning a house, and then you look around and every single house in the neighborhood has to have the same thing done,” Sutton said. “I was thinking, ‘What are those people going to do?’”

The answer some Gulf Coast residents are looking for may very well come in the form of Southeastern students, who, as a part of the school’s Operation G.R.A.C.E. relief effort, will make several short-term mission trips in the days ahead. Already, the school’s trip scheduled for its October fall break has filled up with 140 students eager to go.

Having now been to Slidell, Sutton offers his advice for anyone considering whether to go on a disaster relief trip.

“Just go,” he said with a smile.

In the end, the church must go to places like this, Witt said, reflecting on a sight that he saw while in Slidell. One local congregation had its church building completely blown off of its foundation, but on the following Sunday, the tenacious church members held a service on the bare foundation in the open air.

Marveling at the way they would not allow a hurricane to deter them from meeting, Witt said that the church is the only group that can remain steadfast in a time when everyone else is looking for answers because it has the answer — Jesus Christ.

“No hurricane can wipe out the church,” Witt said. “It is essential that the church take part in disaster relief because the church is the only organization in the world that is not blown off of its foundation by a hurricane.”

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  • Kyle Smith