After watching the round-the-clock television coverage of Hurricane Katrina from the comfort of my den, I wondered what a small group of sixteen Christians journeying south from western Michigan could possibly do to make much of an impact on such a vast, devastated area.
We had an unlikely band of helpers: two retired men, three teenagers, five men from a homeless shelter, a college professor, a father and son, a pastor, and methe one who brought the men from the homeless shelter. I needed to remind myself, "God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong" (1 Cor. 1:27).
After twenty-two hours on the road, we pulled into a public park adjacent to First Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Picayune, Mississippi, at 4:30 a.m. In our caravan of four vehicles, we were hauling a large trailer donated by a Christian in Indianapolis, a Bobcat purchased by some Christians in Michigan, a pop-up trailer, and a large luggage trailer. A few hours of sleep later, we were driving to Slidell, Louisiana, thirty minutes south, for Sunday morning worship.
Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA) had not been spared the tidal surge that swept through this little town a few miles inland from Lake Pontchartrain. We were later told that 90 percent of the homes in this community had flood damage, most with four to eight feet of water barging into their living rooms without invitation. The church had been gutted up to four feet from the cement floor. With no rug in the sanctuary, only the wooden pews seemed normal. This did not hinder our worship, however. We were joined by a group of volunteers from Chattanooga, Tennessee, who were at the end of their week, some Boy Scouts from Florida, and the small Trinity Presbyterian congregation. OP pastor Steve Igo preached from Psalm 73 on the topic of God's mysterious providence. We enjoyed hardy singing, and had musical accompaniment from Priscilla and Talitha Vos, two teenagers from Oakland Hills Community Church (OPC) in Farmington, Michigan, who played a violin and a viola.
After worship and lunch at the church, we drove to Lake Pontchartrain, a few miles away, and were overwhelmed by the incredible destruction of homes along the lake. We saw piles of splintered wood, homes either completely destroyed or half standing, homes off their foundations, boats thrown up against homes, and debris everywhere. A month after the storm, Katrina's rage was still there for all to see in the scattered remains. We drove across the lake and into New Orleans. Mile after mile of homes and businesses were sitting empty, the water line clearly visible. We soon arrived in the downtown area and were able to drive right up to the Superdome. We got out, took some photos, and realized that we were witnessing a piece of American history that will not soon be forgotten.
People often wonder what God's purposes are in such a destructive storm. We soon saw a small part of God's surprising providence at work. Pastor Keith Garahan shared how God was using this storm to transform his ministry at Trinity PCA in Slidell. Prior to the storm, Trinity was a small, struggling church of primarily older, white members. Slidell is a city with a large African-American population. But, like many American communities, a good deal of segregation is evident in the housing and area churches. Pastor Keith had always wanted to reach out to the black community, but had never made much of an effort, not knowing how to break down the stubborn cultural and racial barriers that tend to keep our churches segregated.
Hurricane Katrina provided an opportunity to minister to the black community that Keith had longed for. Ironically, the storm had almost driven Keith out of the area. For a brief moment he had considered moving away. But God had a different plan. Keith decided to go into Lincoln Park, a low-income section of Slidell, where little local, state, or federal assistance had been received, and offer to assist the homeowners with cleanup.
Brian McKeon had come down from New City Fellowship PCA in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to assist in the outreach to Lincoln Park. It didn't take long to sign up some desperate homeowners and send in the volunteers. That's where we came in. Half of our group stayed in Picayune each day, and the other half went into Slidell. Imagine mostly small, one-story homes with huge piles of soggy, ruined furniture, rugs, and removed dry wall along the edge of the street. There were piles and piles down every street. Nearly every home was affected.
Let me introduce you to some of the people we met. Idelle (pictured on page 7) is a retired school teacher, living in a small, one-story bungalow. She had enough trees and limbs down around her house to keep five men busy for an entire day. Hot (90 °), humid days were offset by drinks every thirty minutes or so. Idelle was exuberantly grateful. As Pastor Igo prayed for Idelle's electricity to return, among other things, the lights flickered on in the middle of his prayer! One of the men from the Holland Rescue Mission, a man from the streets of Chicago who only recently learned the gospel, was so struck by the power of prayer that he kept telling everyone he met what God had done. Perhaps God will use this to lead our friend to conversion.
On the second day, we worked for another retired schoolteacher named Lois. While our group gutted the inside of her house, a group of Southern Baptists from out of state worked on the trees in her backyard. Six men on the inside and four men on the outside labored all day at this one home. I thought of the staggering numbers of people affected and the two lives that we touched in two days of work. There were so many more people, so many more homes. It helped me to think of the perhaps hundreds of other Christian groups scattered over the area affected by Katrina and Rita, each demonstrating the love of Christ in word and deed. And I remembered that many more groups would follow us in the months ahead. One person at a time seems terribly slow, especially for the people affected. But I trust that God is using the Body of Christ to enlarge his kingdom, and that God does not despise our small efforts.
Let me mention one more family. On the third and fourth days, we helped a family whose members are pillars in the Lincoln Park communitythe Mills family. Among the small pile of salvaged belongings was a photo of the elderly couple whose home had been filled with dirty water for three days. This amazing family had raised six children in a modest home and sent them all to college, and many of them lived in Lincoln Park. We met quiet, dignified Rose, one of the daughters, who is a principal in a local school. At one point, she could be seen sitting alone, looking through some memorabilia salvaged from the storm. Her brother, George, an advertising agent, vigorously pushed one of our wheelbarrows filled with moldy drywall out to the street, time and time again. He couldn't thank us enough. He repeatedly said that he would never forget our help, and that he would do everything he could to assist us. Assist he did, putting his back into the labor like the rest of us. George is also a freelance writer for a local newspaper. He took our photos and said he planned to write an article explaining who we were and why we had come.
The five or so houses we worked in weren't many, even in a small neighborhood in a small town. Some people were thankful, but others thought we were foolish to waste our vacation time working for free for complete strangers. What possible benefit could there be in such an effort? Pastor Igo had preached a sermon the Sunday before we left based on 1 Corinthians 2. The theme of his message was: a weak message by weak messengers to weak hearers. Indeed. I am comforted by Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 1:25, "For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength."
The author is a member of Cedar Presbyterian Church in Hudsonville, Mich., and serves as chaplain for the Holland Rescue Mission. He quotes the NIV.