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Churches minister to evacuees, volunteers amid ruins

 


Churches minister to evacuees, volunteers amid ruins

Sept. 15, 2005

By Ciona Rouse*

GULFPORT, Miss. (UMNS) — When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the Rev. Ray Stokes and his wife stayed in their home and watched the storm.

"We were fools. We will never do that again," said Stokes, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Gulfport.

The storm made landfall twice Aug. 29, killing an unknown number of people, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands, and decimating coastal communities in Louisiana and Mississippi.

In Gulfport, residents who had remained in their homes found themselves without power, supplies or food.

Stokes and his wife, Lynn, did not allow Katrina to stop them from ministry. On the day the hurricane struck, they went to their church and began feeding people.

"It began with myself, my wife and one lay person," Stokes said. "It just mushroomed from there to be a magnificent ministry."

Like many United Methodist churches in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, Trinity learned quickly how to offer assistance during a disaster. The church became an unofficial distribution center for area shelters and a place for people in Gulfport to eat lunch, find toiletries and receive paper bags of nonperishable food. Supplies and volunteers from across the United States converged on the church.

The Rev. Randy Anderson of Centenary United Methodist Church in Evansville, Ind., brought a response team of 22 people from the denomination’s Evansville District, in the South Indiana Annual (regional) Conference.

"We’re here because we need to be," Anderson said.

The team arrived on a conference bus toting food, bottled water and clothes. The district wanted to partner with the Gulfport community and planned to send more groups when the first team returned to Indiana, Anderson said.

Many people from around the community came to the church for food, Stokes said. He saw state representatives, corporate executives, bankers and lawyers dining with people "who live across the track."

"They’re sitting at the same table because all of them are in the same boat. They’ve lost everything they own," said Stokes, through tears. "People’s possessions and a lifetime of keepsakes are lying at the curb."

Though he had not heard from every Trinity member, Stokes said he did not believe anyone had been killed. Some members had to "literally swim out" of their homes, he said.

The Rev. Jerry Beam, Seashore District superintendent, was among the many town residents whose homes were under 5 feet of water. He lived on an air mattress at Trinity and ate one hot meal a day until he and his family received a donated travel trailer from a layperson in the North Alabama Conference.

Other United Methodist congregations in Mississippi and Louisiana opened distribution centers, feeding programs and shelters. The Rev. Larry Hollon, top executive of United Methodist Communications, the Rev. Randy Day, top executive for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, and the Rev. Paul Dirdak, director of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, visited several of the congregations on a Sept. 7-11 trip to the storm-struck areas.

"The two bishops and their staff and the lay and clergy leaders in the two states are doing an incredible job," Day said.

The group visited Broadmoor United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, La., which was hosting a shelter for Red Cross volunteers.

"We are caring for the caregivers," said the Rev. Amy Mercer, minister of discipleship and missions at Broadmoor.

In Baton Rouge alone, Red Cross workers were staying in six shelters, and additional shelters were being arranged as more Red Cross volunteers arrived in the area.

The first three churches that opened as staff shelters were United Methodist, and nine other churches were willing to do the same, Mercer said.

Red Cross volunteers typically take temporary housing and then move to hotels, said Mike McEuen, a Broadmoor member. Because hotels were filled with storm evacuees, the church’s shelter was used to house volunteers for as long as necessary.

Members of the church and community stocked the kitchen with food. They also brought toiletries, towels, linens and phone cards for the volunteers, and church members signed up to wash laundry for the shelter guests.

"There’s been such a tremendous outpouring of offers to serve from our congregation," Mercer said. She was surprised that more than enough people lined up "to wash dirty clothes," she said.

"We see this as a mission to people," said McEuen, who oversees the shelter operations.

Bob West, a member of Goshen United Methodist Church in Murray, Ky., was one of nearly 400 volunteers from around the world who spent at least one night at Broadmoor. His church in Murray was aiding evacuees while he traveled to Louisiana to help assess damages. It felt good to "see all the people from all over the (United States) helping," he said.

His days were long as he traveled into damaged parts of the New Orleans area.

"You see a lot of damage that you don’t expect," he said. "You see sights and smells that you don’t expect."

Broadmoor Church provides spiritual care for the volunteers as they go into the crisis areas each day. Church members set up a prayer table with different versions of the Bible, a prayer request bowl, copies of The Upper Room daily devotional guide and a walking prayer guide for use on the church grounds. Pastors and members are always available to pray with and listen to the volunteers.

Mercer recognizes that volunteers are seeing difficult things, and she believes Broadmoor has a role to play in caring for them.

"I can’t imagine anything worse than this," Mercer said. "But God’s in it. He’s working through it. He’s provided all the resources to make it go."

*Rouse is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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