Danny E. Olinger and Rick Cohler
It smelled like Christmas with all the fallen pines. Yet it also smelled like decay. The streets were full of cars, even though many stores were closed for repairs. Blue tarps marked the roofs. Nearly every local citizen stopped and said, "Thank you so much for helping us."
That is part of what the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) disaster response teams experienced in and around Picayune, Mississippi, as OP volunteers reached out to those affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Katrina's eye passed just to the west of Picayune, flattening thousands of trees and damaging many of the homes in the town of about 10,000 people, twenty miles from the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. In Picayune, most buildings showed damage-some minor, some devastating. The number of downed trees rivaled the number still standing. One building largely unaffected by the storm was First Presbyterian Church, where volunteers from the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the OPC bunked on the floors of Sunday school rooms and showered behind tarps rigged up on swing sets behind the church.
OPC and PCA Working Together
The OPC's partnership with the PCA's Mission to North America (MNA) in disaster relief began with the work of two men: Bob Keys, a deacon at Grace Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Columbus, Ohio, and David Haney, a member of the OPC's Committee on Diaconal Ministries from Faith OPC in Pole Tavern, New Jersey.
After the storm, Bob went south to connect with the PCA's Presbytery of Nashville and to participate in their relief effort in Mississippi. David heard about Bob's involvement and talked with him. Bob suggested that David come to Mississippi immediately and meet with MNA leaders about OPC participation.
David arrived in Mississippi on September 10 and met with MNA disaster relief leaders Ron and Judy Haynes. David wanted to know how the OPC could help. The MNA leaders welcomed the OPC's help and requested the formation of OPC work teams to arrive on Sunday and work through Wednesday from First Presbyterian Church in Picayune.
OPC Relief Work
Leading the work in Picayune was PCA site coordinator Tim Anderson and OPC team leaders Jack and Vickie Swann, members at Trinity OPC in Hatboro, Pennsylvania. The OPC volunteers came from throughout the United States and often had only two things in common: their faith and the fact that they had never done anything like this before. The volunteers removed trees from the roofs of homes, from driveways, from porches, from clotheslines, from creeks, and from garages. They also covered roofs with tarps, put up drywall, swept debris, carried brush, and fixed mailboxes. They distributed food to those who came to First Presbyterian Church for help and passed out food in bags to those in need in the surrounding community, especially to those living closer to Lake Pontchartrain.
One relief effort of the OPC team was at the home of PCA members Jay and Callie Wilkens. More than twenty huge trees had been toppled in the Wilkens' yard. Jay has blood pressure problems and did what he could to help, but the OP volunteers often advised him to take it easy. Throughout the day, Callie kept saying, "I can't believe you would come all the way down here to do this for us."
When the OP volunteers left, the driveway was open and there was a pile of branches beside it about forty feet long and fifteen feet tall. "I have a new perspective on the love of God from you helping so many people here," said Callie. "Previously, I didn't even know about the OPC; now I'm so thankful for it and will never forget it."
Latricia Robbins and her young son live in southeastern Picayune. A tree had fallen on Latricia's front porch, and brush covered her yard. The OP volunteers themselves wondered how they were going to remove the tree without heavy equipment. A county crew was working on a similar dilemma at a home across the street. One of the OP volunteers, Gary Davenport, a regional home missionary from Sanger, Texas, talked to the county crew about the situation. A few minutes later they moved their equipment to Latricia's home and removed the tree. The OP volunteers then pulled the brush and rolled the trunks to piles along the side street. "I think I'm going to cry. I'm so relieved," Latricia said.
When each relief job was finished, the team would gather with the person helped to share the gospel and pray. Team leaders would say, "We're doing this because we're believers in Jesus Christ, and we are trying to show his love by helping others in this time of need." Mention would also be made of First Presbyterian Church's hospitality in making the relief effort possible in Picayune. After praying together, the response from the residents was often a softly uttered "Thank you," accompanied by tears and a hug.
The Physical Toll and Other Difficulties
The heat, the humidity, the smell, the bugs-each was to be expected. But their confluence exacted a toll on those engaged in volunteer work. For those familiar with Mississippi in late summer, it was difficult; for Northerners experiencing the Deep South for the first time, it was truly a challenge. The temperature would often be in the low 90s in the morning and rise to the upper 90s by midday, with very high humidity. Liquids were constantly consumed, while a volunteer OP nurse with each group made sure that breaks were taken. At night, after the long day's labor in the sun, many took painkillers to lessen the hurt of aching muscles. If the hurt wasn't brutal enough, in some places the stench proved almost unbearable. And then there were the bugs. Lovebugs, mosquitoes, and gnats were everywhere. They always seemed to find the corner of the eye just as the saw hit the tree or the hand lifted the log. A few snakes were also spotted.
There were many other difficulties to overcome. In some places, Katrina had uprooted all standing road signs. Global Positioning Satellite equipment had to be used to make sure that teams reached the right places. Supplies, particularly ice, were in short supply. The sheer amount of cutting left many chainsaws hard to start or running roughly. Not having a truck and trailer available to haul the "Bobcat" around for heavy lifting limited the teams to jobs in the area immediately surrounding First Presbyterian Church. And even with the Bobcat in action, the still-saturated ground made maneuvering a complicated process. In one yard, cut logs and roofing tin were used to keep the Cat from slipping deeper into the mud after it had bottomed out.
Still, the OP volunteers rejoiced in the opportunity to help. In fact, disappointment only arose when delays from broken equipment and mistaken directions kept them from lending a hand. Helping those who could not afford to hire help or could not help themselves proved especially satisfying. The volunteers had made the trip to give themselves to the brethren and neighbors. Rest could come later. The testimony of most was that the Lord had done unbelievable things in the recovery effort. Plans came together. Homes were fixed. People's lives were helped.
Sometimes a crisis allows you to get to know your brother and neighbor in ways you never could have imagined. That is what I (Danny Olinger) thought as I was riding in a car with Tim Anderson, the PCA site leader, on our way to clear trees from a family's home outside of Picayune. As we were riding and talking, Tim and I realized that we had spent the summer in Philadelphia living in places separated by less than a hundred yards. There we worshiped at different churches (one PCA, one OPC) and worked at different jobs. But here we were, working together in the Deep South, trying to help people in need. For me, the experience spoke to the bonds that are found in the covenant under the headship of Jesus Christ. It also spoke to the heart of compassion that is found in believers who know that their Lord has been compassionate to them.
The coauthor of this story, Rick Cohler, served on the first OP team and works as an editor of the Times-Press of Seymour, Wisconsin. Upon his return from Picayune, Rick wrote an account of what he saw and did with other OP volunteers in Picayune, much of which has been used for this story with his permission. He closed that account with these words:
As I drove away from the destruction of Katrina, I couldn't help but think about all these people with such a long road yet to travel. It will be years before the damage is undone and life truly returns to normal. There will be more teams of volunteers who will make their way south to Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas to lend a helping hand and show the nation that all of us care and want to share God's love.
Mr. Olinger, an OP minister, is the editor of New Horizons. Mr. Cohler is a member of New Hope OPC in Green Bay, Wis. Volunteers are now headed to Florida, too, where Hurricane Wilma hit in October.