"What a devastating occurrence, but also a divine opportunity," said Bobby Welch, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, after visiting hurricane-ravaged Mississippi on September 1-2.
Welch visited Southern Baptist Disaster Relief teams in Biloxi and Hattiesburg, three churches along Mississippi's Gulf Coast and two relief centers in Jackson.
"Southern Baptists have their greatest opportunity to say 'Jesus' to the lost people of the Gulf Coast states and to this nation in our response to what is an unprecedented natural disaster," said Welch, pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Preliminary reports, though sketchy, revealed that as many as one-fourth of the 2,100 Southern Baptist churches in Mississippi suffered a devastating onslaught from Hurricane Katrina, William Perkins, editor of the Mississippi Baptist Record, told Welch.
"Despite this horrific tragedy and temporary setback, Southern Baptists in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana have the most wonderful opportunity they've ever had to catapult the gospel of Jesus Christ and God's Kingdom work ahead fifty years," Welch said, "if we will but seize the day."
Expressing deep gratitude for the significant efforts the Southern Baptist Convention has made in times past through disaster relief response teams, Welch said, "We have got to get geared up to do far more than we ever have. Offering a cup of cold water in Jesus' name will not be enough. We're going to need countless tanker-truckloads of it."
Recounting what one relief worker told him, Welch said the devastation is far worse than what all the hurricanes inflicted on his home state last year combined.
"This is both a test and an opportunity far beyond any we've ever had before to rush to such a horrible hemorrhage, stop the bleeding, as well as to heal and rehabilitate.
"And while I'm immensely thankful for the tons of gospel seeds our Convention's disaster relief ministries will plant, at the same time, we must grasp this reality right now: Many of our sister churches are devastated and destroyed, and they're in no shape to even begin to cultivate this field," Welch said.
"We've rebuilt many buildings in the past, but now it's time for us to help rebuild the church," he said, voicing his desire for churches across the United States to partner with churches in all stricken areas, and to do so with covenants lasting two or three years.
"It's one thing to send construction teams — and that's great — but it's quite another to ask these crippled churches, 'Can we come back next year and help with Vacation Bible School?'" Welch said.
One Mississippi church is going to need much more than rebuilding. It'll need resurrection, said Welch, recounting what happened to its pastor. The pastor fled the hurricane and later returned to find his home and church completely destroyed. While the pastor was on his way to Jackson — where the Mississippi Baptist Convention offices are located; where he would seek help and consolation — he received a call telling him not to come back to the church, because the members had decided to go to other churches that had weathered the storm.
While in Jackson, Welch visited a shelter for refugees at Broadmoor Baptist Church, as well as one at First Baptist Church. Whereas the shelter at Broadmoor housed multiracial evacuees of all ages, the members at First were asked by the local health and human services director if they would receive geriatric patients who were evacuated from nursing homes along the coast.
The relief team at First was preparing for a second wave of such evacuees when Welch arrived. The gym floor was a sea of cots, and a long table of medical supplies lined one wall. Welch soon learned the first group of evacuees arrived hungry, un-bathed, soiled, and scared.
Of particular impact on Welch were the nurses who'd traveled with their patients, leaving behind New Orleans and the ravages of a hurricane that had left them nothing and who were willing to be transferred to other states so as to remain with their patients.
On Friday morning, September 2, Welch met with Jim Futral, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board. Futral had been to the disaster relief feeding station at First Baptist Church in Biloxi and shared with Welch what he experienced.
Futral said the refugees would walk up, bleary-eyed and dazed, not having eaten for days and say, "We heard we could get some food here. What do we have to do to get it?"
With quivering lips and tearful eyes, Futral said, "I told them, 'All you have to do is take my hand. I'll lead you over here where you can get a hot meal. And if you need clothes, we can give you that, too.'"
One woman needed the clothes. She came to the site wearing a shirt and shorts, but had no shoes. "'What I'm wearing is all I have left,'" said Futral, recounting the bedraggled woman's words.
Later that morning, Welch visited the feeding site of which Futral spoke. He shook hands with some of the Southern Baptist disaster relief workers, prayed with them, and then visited the nearby Bay Vista Baptist Church. Welch had heard the small church fed more than four hundred people in a day using a gas-fired grill. After helping to unload some supplies from the van in which he was riding and also praying with workers at this site, Welch headed west to Gulfport on Interstate 10, the shoulders of which bore mountains of debris, making them look like miles-long landfill dumps.
Gulfport was closer to where Hurricane Katrina's eye made landfall, and it looked it — more destruction, more police, and more heartache, especially for the pastor and members of First Baptist Church there.
"It looks like a bombed-out building from World War II," said Welch, a former Army Ranger.
Barely a skeleton of its former self, the building relented to Katrina's storm surge and blasting winds, which ripped down the brick and concrete walls like a kid in the nursery knocks over wooden building blocks. About all that remained of the sanctuary were the steeple, the baptistery, and the balcony.
As Welch crept through the rubble, the church's pastor, Chuck Register arrived.
"What are you going to do?" Welch asked him.
"We're going to have church on Sunday," Register replied, explaining that members would congregate for services at a different time than those who were attending a church that First had recently planted in a nearby town.
In the course of the conversation, Register wept. Welch hugged him and prayed.
Moving westward to the quaint beach hamlet of Pass Christian, Welch stopped at the small facilities of First Baptist Church there. From the outside, the damage seemed minimal by comparison to other places where only the concrete slabs of houses remained. But inside, pews were askew, contorted, flung in every direction, and piled on one another. Silt had turned the red carpet black.
"Where do you go from here?" Welch muttered to himself after walking back outside.
Welch answered his own question a couple of hours later when he stopped at Main Street Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, where he greeted a disaster relief team from Florida.
Referring to the entire Southern Baptist Convention, Welch said, "This is a golden opportunity for us to show our Baptist distinctives of believing the Bible, lifting up the Lord Jesus in ministry, and reaching people for Jesus Christ."
Welch told Baptist Press, "We already know how to recover from all kinds of disasters. And I thank God for that. But we need to move to the next level. We need to recover from this disaster in a manner that goes well beyond our kinfolks' sake, and moves even closer to the Kingdom's sake."
SBC Disaster Relief
• As of September 15, Southern Baptists had more than 5,000 volunteers engaged in the Katrina response effort.
• At the request of the American Red Cross (ARC), Southern Baptist Disaster Relief was ready to prepare 300,000 meals daily. No less than 59 mobile disaster relief kitchens from as far away as California and Virginia had already prepared over 2,100,000 meals.
• Each kitchen arrived with a cleanup and recovery unit. Many also travelled with a shower unit and communications unit. As of September 15, there were more than 239 mobile disaster relief units from 33 state Baptist conventions engaged in the Katrina response. They had provided over 12,500 showers and relayed over 1,300 messages for victims.
• Southern Baptist volunteers have also manned two ARC kitchens: The Spirit of America and Henry's Kitchen.
• Southern Baptist Disaster Relief teams had completed more than 2,300 individual jobs, including 2,365 loads of laundry.
• Southern Baptist Disaster Relief has more than 600 mobile disaster response units and more than 30,000 trained volunteers. State Baptist conventions recruit and train the volunteers. State conventions, associations, and churches own the majority of hard assets.
• Southern Baptist Disaster Relief receives gifts at www.namb.net/disasterrelief, 888-571-5895, or the SBC Disaster Relief, Box 116543, Atlanta, GA 30368-6543. The giving of Southern Baptist churches enables 100 percent of all gifts to support front-line assistance and feeding.