Patricia E. Clawson
When Phil Hodson heard that a potentially disastrous hurricane was aiming toward the Gulf Coast six hours south of his Texas home, he e-mailed Orthodox Presbyterian and Presbyterian Church in America pastors in four states, offering to shelter displaced people.
Licensed by the OPC to serve as pulpit supply for the mission work in Longview, Texas, Phil also e-mailed his congregation of thirty, asking if any would be willing to host strangers in their homes for as long as needed. And he contacted camps to see if any might serve as shelters. Little did Phil know what impact those e-mails would have on his congregation or on those whom they would help.
Jack Sawyer, pastor of Pineville OPC in Pineville, Louisiana, and his congregation of sixty also learned about the gift of giving to hurricane victims. After receiving hundreds of calls and lots of money and supplies from across the country, Jack and his church funneled nearly $100,000 toward hurricane relief.
These churches spearheaded relief efforts through OP congregations to hundreds of victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Their stories tell of Christ's work in those who rolled up their sleeves to help and in those who were compelled to open their hands to receive.
Within days of Hurricane Katrina, two vans pulled up outside Phil Hodson's Texas home at 3 a.m. The passengers stared forward in shock; no one looked out the window. After a Nazarene minister stepped out, Phil hugged him. The man responded, "You have to understand these people have lost everything."
"I understand," Phil said.
"No. You have to understand these people lost EVERYTHING."
Arthur and Tyra Ellis, with their son Joshua and daughter Endya, were among those on the van, after leaving a shelter in Baton Rouge. They were picked to stay with the Hodsons. "You can stay here as long as you need to," Phil told them. Tons of bricks seemed to be lifted off them. "I've seen a lot of fear, even when I explain we're Christians here to help you," explained Phil.
"All we saw when we got there were smiling faces," said Arthur, who lost everything in New Orleans. "It's eased a little of the traumatic pain and the caution of where we were going."
Arthur was concerned, in part, because his family is African-American and Phil's family and neighbors are Caucasian. The Hodsons' hospitality and a trip to the store for new clothes helped the Ellis family feel "a little more human."
"I've just never seen the love of God as I've seen it through this Presbyterian pastor," said Arthur, a Missionary Baptist minister of education and a physical therapy technician. "There hasn't been a need we had that he hasn't met. He's doing everything in his power to get us back on our feet."
Attending Phil's worship service at Christ the King Presbyterian Church made them feel a whole lot better, said Arthur. Phil preached that God is in control.
"It brought tears to my eyes," said Arthur. "I never knew a Presbyterian in my life."
Through Phil's efforts, Joshua enrolled in a Christian school and Endya gained scholarships to Le Tourneau University in Longview. Arthur was hired as a certified nursing assistant. Phil is teaching Tyra to drive, so she can get her driver's license. He found a dentist for them and is looking for a vehicle, furniture, appliances, food, and clothes. They plan to stay in Texas.
"I can't do anything but say, 'Thank you, Lord,'" said Arthur. "Through it all, good or bad, trust God."
Gerry and Ingrid Macklin also agreed to have an older couple and their daughter stay with them. "We have to take somebody in our house if there's a need," said Ingrid, a member of Phil's congregation. "It's our duty to reach a hand out to them to show them the love of Christ."
The family was rescued from their flooded home in a boat after spending the night on their second floor, watching water creep up the stairs. The Macklins took the family shopping for clothes, to the Red Cross and FEMA to get food stamps, for job interviews, and to look at apartments. During family devotions, the Macklins focused on God's creation and faith. "It made them think about where they stood before God," said Ingrid, who gave them a Bible when they returned to New Orleans.
Responding to Phil's e-mail, Kevin and Merritt Glanton, of Tyler OPC in Tyler, Texas, showed hospitality to a family of four from New Orleans. Yet the Glantons also were recipients of hospitality by fellow church members who dropped off meals, supplies, and money to help them care for the Beninatos.
"Without our church's support and help with food and money, it would have been very hard," said Merritt, who has plenty of laundry detergent, shampoo, toilet paper, a full freezer, and money to pay water and electric bills and for gasoline. A doctor from Tyler volunteered his services to Louis Beninato, who was just diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
"As soon as we walked into the home, they were so kind and courteous," said Louis, who escaped with a bag of medicine and three dogs. "They say grace before every meal."
Don and Michele Spencer's family of eight opened their home to a group of eight, moving everything out of their family room and moving in two futons and an air mattress. Their faith in action was a testimony to their non-Christian extended family and neighbors, who worried they were bringing in ruffians. "The Christian response is to love our neighbors, to offer a cup of cold water," said Michele.
"The cup of cold water is inextricable from the gospel in the life of the church," said Phil. "There is an obligation to love people in word and deed. When there's a crisis, do you walk by or extend your hand? 'Do good to everybody, especially to the household of faith.' I see the gospel delivered with a cup of cold water."
"Holding fast to the truth is very important," said John Johnson, pastor of Tyler OPC. "But loving one another is part of the OPC too."
Jack Sawyer's OP church in Pineville, Louisiana, also offered a cup of cold water. First, people called to find out how members fared in their former mission work in New Orleans, which closed in May. Everyone got out safely, except one member who, being a policeman, had to stay behind. Donations soon arrived: $1,000 the first week grew to nearly $100,000 by mid-October. "Everybody insisted on doing what they could to help," said Jack, whose congregation is 225 miles from New Orleans. "When you see the awful suffering and the town filling up with evacuees, you look at what you can do to help."
The funds are funneled through the Shepherd Center, a nonprofit organization that was formed by area churches to care for the needy. Food, ice, and other supplies are handed out by volunteers. In the first ten days, more than seven hundred families visited the Shepherd's Center, said Jack. That number doubled in the second storm.
"Suddenly everything is stripped away and they're in line for handouts for the first time in their lives," said Jack, who handed out Ultimate Questions booklets and their church's brochure. "Most people are so shell-shocked, they're numb. They're not thinking about where to go to church. It's 'Where can I eat?'"
When Hurricane Rita hit, Pineville was in the swath of destruction. The Sawyer family was holed up in their church building when a huge oak tree fell and narrowly missed the church office and library.
Gerardus and Margaretha Broodkoorn, Dutch Presbyterians in their eighties, fled to Pineville from Sulphur, Louisiana, without their medicine in the middle of the night, then slept on an air mattress in a local shelter. Gerardus, who has Alzheimer's, was in a wheelchair. Before the hurricane, the Broodkoorns were discouraged and told their hosts, Jim and Laura Hilleke, "We had lost all hope in man and said, 'Lord, take us.' Now we have met so many kind people. What a way to show he hasn't forgotten us."
Jack read Psalm 27 to the Broodkoorns: "For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble." Gerardus, in a solemn voice, replied, "Amen."
Laura knows the cost of kindness. "It's easy to say, 'Give a cup of cold water in my name.' But it takes something away from you to do it. You have to give up time and freedom."
In an animal shelter, Nicole Guess, 12, helped care for stray pets that found their way to Pineville. "It helped me understand and be grateful for what I have because I know how much many have lost," said Nicole, a Pineville OPC covenant child.
Pineville OPC elder David Barnard, who is medical director of the Huey P. Long Medical Center, wrote out prescriptions for medications for the 400 patients who were in local shelters. He was thankful for the efforts of the Red Cross and other organizations that served as stewards of money. "I didn't see any wasting of materials," said David. "All the money we received went to very worthy causes, such as procurement of medication and basic shelter needs."
Many churches offered help, including Calvary OPC in Cedar Grove, Wisconsin. Along with other churches, they filled up two 18-wheelers with mattresses and linens that were shipped to Pineville.
"I was amazed at how many people around the country wanted to give," said Jack.
Members of Providence OPC in Kingwood, Texas, helped individually when Hurricane Rita struck forty minutes south in Houston. "If we had a building, we could have done a lot more," said Pamela York, wife of pastor Adam York.
Cherri Simpkins, a member of Providence, helped sort clothes, cans of kidney beans, diapers, and other donations at Houston's Astrodome two days after the levees broke. She talked with many of the 11,000 refugees who were jammed together on cots lined up side-by-side.
"People grabbed your arms and said thank you," said Cherri, who thought many were Christians as they told their stories. "How vulnerable man is and how powerful God is. Any moment could be the end. The realization is that man is not in control." Cherri and her husband, Coleman, also housed four sons of a family with ten children, who were without power and water for several days.
The work of rebuilding homes and lives will be going on for some time. There will be challenges to care for so many who are out of work, homeless, and without medical insurance. Jack Sawyer hopes that donations don't slow down for some time. Although Phil Hodson's church felt the wear and tear on their small congregation, they're determined not to forget to offer a cup of cold water.
"Only by God's grace have we had the strength to do it," said Phil.
"I'm personally more gratified and thankful for the blessings we receive every day," said Dr. Barnard. "It's good to be reminded periodically that it's a gift and not a birthright."
The author is the office secretary for the Committee on Christian Education and a member of Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pa.