Publication: One-to-One, Summer 2006
Sheets of rain and streaks of lightning greeted our team from Long Branch (New Jersey) Covenant Church as we drove into Bayou la Batre, Alabama on a Sunday in late April. We found our way to the church building where the Christian Outreach International (COI) staff were waiting; Matt, Heidi, and Jeremiah from Canada and Ohio are twenty-somethings who have given up the comforts of family and friends for months on end in order to be in the Gulf Coast region, helping in whatever ways they can.
That evening, as the rain continued to come down in torrents, a call came in from a local homeowner: “Could you put a tarp on my roof? It’s raining in my house!” “That’s odd,” said Matt, “we already put a tarp on her house.” He quickly realized that it must have blown off, so on their one day off, he and Jeremiah drove over to replace the covering.
The next morning, Tony DiMauro and Ken Brynildsen started the project of removing that homeowner’s leaking roof and installing a new metal roof. Charles Harris, a professional electrician, and Dianne Waters began electrical work on a house that has been loaned to COI. The COI staff hopes to stay there, as well as use it as a base for a children’s ministry that Heidi is launching. While parents are often consumed with the challenges of recovering from losses of home, possessions, and even jobs, children need to be able to enjoy their childhood by having a place to play together.
Before leaving NJ, a number of intercessors from the church had expressed an urgency about praying for the team during the week. Even as the name of Christ is being lifted up in the region due to the many Christians pouring time and money into the relief work, there is evidence of spiritual opposition.
For example, the ignition on Jeremiah’s truck came apart in his hands on their first morning. He called Mike, an experienced mechanic, who outlined the repair process. Charles chimed in: “Let’s just pray!” which the team promptly did. Just two minutes later, the ignition was working….and it continued to work the rest of the week!
On another day, Andrew was pulling a rafter off a house, and it fell onto his face. Although the board had many nails, none touched him. He shrugged it off and kept working, not mentioning it to anyone else. Minutes later, I received a call from his wife Gail, who was holding the fort back in NJ. She mentioned several people had told her they were praying for the team. I relayed this to Andrew and the others, and Andrew realized he had just experienced protection as a direct answer to those prayers.
A few of the team members had come down with another Katrina relief team in December, 2005, when they did a “mud-out” of another Bayou la Batre house (literally digging out mud and hauling water-soaked possessions to the curb for disposal), installed subflooring, and removed ceiling tiles in Robin’s house, and distributed food and clothing in nearby Biloxi, Mississippi. Encountering the extent of the physical and emotional damage caused by the hurricane was deeply moving. The team was impressed by the gratitude of the people for being alive, and for whatever possessions they still had. Over and over, they were thanked for coming down to make a difference in the lives of others.
The team all came home in December with a desire to return. Some of them were able to come again this time; others are planning to go down to New Orleans in July with the youth group from the Shrewsbury Assembly of God church.
As we looked around, we saw many signs of hope. Bayou la Batre itself, which was virtually a ghost town in December, had many more businesses open, and lots of traffic on the roads. The December “mud-out” house had lights on one evening as we drove by. Biloxi has managed to remove most of the piles of debris, although many lots are still empty except for the ubiquitous trailers.
One thing is clear: for the churches of America, the opportunity to serve the people of the Gulf Coast is far from over. Willing volunteers are needed with a wide range of skills. Money is needed to pay for building materials to enable homeowners to return and try to regain their lives. We cannot just assume that local, state or even federal government will be adequate to address the overwhelming scope of the devastation. God has opened the door for us to show the world that our faith is accompanied by works of love and compassion.