News Articles

WORLDVIEW: They’ve seen worse destruction, but this is home

PICAYUNE, Miss. (BP)–At least two of the Southern Baptist volunteers helping survivors of Hurricane Katrina have seen this kind of devastation before — and worse.

Retired missionaries RT and Fran Buckley served for more than 30 years in Bangladesh, a flat flood plain of a country that lies almost defenseless from the deadly cyclones that roar in off the Bay of Bengal. The big one, in 1970, killed at least 500,000 people. Many were washed away without a trace.

“We went into places where you would see carcasses of animals up in trees, and you couldn’t walk without stepping over bodies,” Buckley remembers.

After the initial shock, the Buckleys and other missionaries got to work — feeding and clothing survivors, rebuilding houses, setting up food-for-work projects, sinking tube wells to find drinking water for people inundated by filthy water. They did the same after nearly every cyclone and flood in Bangladesh for three decades. Then they spent the first six months of their retirement helping coordinate relief work in India’s Gujarat state after the massive 2001 earthquake there killed nearly 20,000 people and left more than 600,000 homeless.

They’re helping again. But this time it’s different: Katrina hit home.

Buckley, 65, grew up in Picayune, near Mississippi’s Gulf coast, and the couple returned to live there after completing missionary service. Katrina damaged their roof and uprooted nearly every tree on their three-acre place. Their power’s still out. A dusk-to-dawn curfew remains in effect in the area. Otherwise they’re OK. But plenty of their neighbors got hit much harder. And 30 miles south? “Nothing is left,” Buckley reports. “You get to Highway 90 and below that it’s just total devastation. I’m sure the death total is going to rise. It has to.”

It feels strange, he admits. In Bangladesh, disaster happened to “the people we had gone to work with. Now it’s happening to us. That’s one of the emotions we’ve had to deal with. But the destruction is so widespread that not helping people is not an option. Help needs to be given all over.”

That’s exactly what he’s doing. When I reached him by phone early on the morning of Sept. 7, he was heading out the door for First Baptist Church of Ozona, the small congregation north of Picayune he serves as interim pastor. A second truckload of food was coming in from a church in northern Mississippi. First Baptist has set up a food pantry to sustain local people in need. Church members are delivering gasoline and medical supplies, putting chainsaws to downed trees stranding people in their homes — and generally helping folks any way they can.

Buckley is proud of the way his little church is responding. The church people have been through some hard times in recent years, he says, but that isn’t preventing them from reaching out to others.

“Our folks …” he begins, then pauses as his voice breaks with emotion. “Our chairman of deacons, Gary Uzel, lost his home, but from the time it was possible to get out, he and his wife have been out helping. We have members in our church -– and other Christians who can’t get to their own church communities -– who are feeding people who aren’t in a position to cook and feed themselves. Those kinds of things started immediately after the storm had blown through and the reality of everything had sunk in.”

Buckley knows people will need help for a long time to come. Electricity and basic services will return fairly soon, he expects, but lost homes and jobs will take much longer to rebuild and restore. Accepting assistance will be hard for local folks who take pride in self-reliance.

But he hopes the awesome power of Katrina will awaken believers and unbelievers in Mississippi, Louisiana and the rest of the country to their utter dependence on God. America’s vast wealth, military might and international dominance meant little as the hurricane ravaged one of the nation’s most vital port regions.

“This tragedy really underscores how comfortable we’ve become in Zion,” he says. “We’ve put all our faith and expectancy in things we’ve been able to do. You expect people in Bangladesh to say, ‘We had no defenses.’ Well, we didn’t have any defenses over here either. We had our brick homes, we had the Superdome, we had the embankments around New Orleans. But what did they do?”

What we truly rely on is worth thinking about -– and praying about — amid all the human suffering and misery, amid the anger and finger-pointing and second-guessing about what authorities at various levels did and didn’t do to prepare or respond to the disaster.

Meanwhile, the Buckleys and thousands of other volunteers from near and far will stay busy helping Katrina survivors in the name of Christ.

“The Lord is gracious,” Buckley says. “Our churches are so busy down here. Even though they’ve sustained some damage, they’ve been involved in ministry –- and that’s what it’s all about.”
Erich Bridges is senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges