Publication: Pastoral Letter, October 2005
Dear Friend in Christ:
I hope you read this letter in its entirety as I try to describe Hurricane Katrina and our response to it. Let me begin by saying that I was born in New Orleans and spent my early years along the bayous of South Louisiana and still have many relatives who have lived there all of their lives. I also lived along the Mississippi Coast for 3 years, which is now in great pain.
Katrina is the worst natural disaster to strike the United States in my lifetime, and in some ways, the worst ever. I have ridden out and been close to many hurricanes_three within the last 14 months. Of course the worst ones are the ones that take the life and property of someone close to you.
The number of deaths, destruction of property, and loss of jobs is still unknown. But I believe the deaths will be in the thousands, economic damage may be in the hundred billion dollar plus range, and the loss of jobs in the hundreds of thousands. Added to the misery are the widespread power outages, communication loss, gasoline shortages and even looting in some areas. All of this is hampering the rescue and recovery efforts.
Many remote areas are still unaccounted for. While New Orleans was the focus for the national media, there are hundreds of villages and towns in South Louisiana and Mississippi that have not received the same attention. Many of these places no longer exist. Specifically, much land in South Louisiana was simply washed away. Areas where my father labored as a missionary in the 1930s and early 1940s are gone.
The Gulf Coast of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana were devastated. Serious damage occurred in our area, Baldwin County, Alabama, approximately 150 miles to the west of New Orleans. The devastation continued in some places 150 miles inland. The storm almost entirely covered the Gulf of Mexico.
I traveled to Pascagoula, Mississippi, 30 miles west of the city of Mobile, to be with my friend Horace Vinson, pastor of The Worship Center. Homes were destroyed for blocks along the beach and inland. The house where we once lived was covered with 4 or 5 feet of water. The Worship Center sustained heavy damage and some members lost all.
Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and our sister church, Grace Temple, pastored by Dwayne Higgason, sustained heavy damage and they are 80 miles from the Gulf. My brother-in-law and sister live in Wiggins, Mississippi, 25 miles from the coast; their home was seriously damaged.
Our local church in Mobile has a family that has been with us for nearly 40 years who lived in Biloxi, Mississippi. Their home, which sat high on strong concrete pilings, was completely washed away. Thank God, they had already evacuated to Mobile. My son Stephen’s in-laws also escaped to Mobile_nine people were reported killed by the storm in their neighborhood of Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
Overall, Mobile was spared the worst damage. There was flooding downtown_30 miles north of the Gulf and 100 miles east of the storm center. Streets were under 5-8 feet of water. The western edge of Mobile had more than 100 mile per hour winds with many trees down. Interstate-10 over the Mobile Bay was closed; the highway causeway was completely flooded. Some of our local church families who lived in the southern part of Mobile County experienced significant damage to their homes. Others lost businesses. South Alabama communities such as Bayou La Batre and Coden were battered by the huge storm surge.
Covenant Church of Mobile and the CSM facilities escaped significant damage; some roof leakage, and loss of a few trees. But the area was without power, gas or phones for several days, making our efforts to assist difficult. Where we live, Baldwin County, Alabama, also had high winds and flooding. However, in our own homes, we had little loss_just inconvenience without power and fuel.
Of course, our hearts go out to New Orleans. Pastor Charles Green has been a friend of mine for many years. He and his leaders have built a great church of several thousand members, Faith Church. His son, Michael, now pastors the church and Charles works with leaders of other churches. Both Charles and Michael lost all of their material possessions in the storm, as did their church members. The large building was under 14 feet of water. Imagine, every house, every business, every job, all infrastructure_gone.
I have cousins scattered across South Louisiana, most of whom I have not heard from. One cousin who lives near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is from South Louisiana, and has five families from Louisiana now living in his house.
Television has given us the graphic details. But the destruction was over a much greater area than television could cover.
The Effect on CSM
Our local church and CSM are trying to help others. The local church is sending in relief teams and CSM is raising funds. All funds designated “Hurricane Relief” will go directly to help churches and families that have been affected. Gifts should be sent to our regular address or online. We are asking for gifts over and above your regular CSM support.
We have received little CSM mail since the storm due to the closing of the Mobile Post Office. In the past, some of our mail was typically routed through New Orleans, which also has hampered us. That, of course, will change now. This is a critical time for us. In order to help others, we must pay our staff and keep our office functioning. By the time you get this letter, mail should be restored. Please continue your prayers and support.
As most of you know, my wife, Carolyn, is fighting cancer and many of us are fighting along with her. She recently had a hysterectomy at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. She will undergo three more chemotherapy treatments, then return to Houston for a scan. If more cancer is found, she will undergo radiation to that area.
Carolyn’s spirits are good and she looks good. Her doctor is optimistic as we are. We were pleased with her treatment both in Mobile and Houston. Thanks so much for your prayers.
When tragedy of any kind_personal or national_comes, many people ask, “Why?” I have seen that question asked on TV, heard it on radio, and read it in the newspapers. I have heard many answers and some wise people say, “I don’t know.”
If our eyes could roam the galaxies and our minds could comprehend eternity, then perhaps we could answer. God’s ways are higher than ours (see Isaiah 55:8-9). I have scoured the Scriptures. But I don’t ask God, “Why?” (see Romans 9:20-21; Isaiah 29:16).
One newspaper columnist wrote “nobody up there loves us.” Others cited the sin in New Orleans as a reason for the storm. I heard others cite how the U.S. mistreated or supported Israel. Some have said that it’s because the U.S. did not sign the Kyoto Treaty. Such speculation is both foolish and dangerous (Matthew 7:1; Luke 13:1-5).
I know there was sin in New Orleans. I know about the statistics, the festivals, and other problems there. (I also know about sin in New York City and across America.) I have read the speculation of some Christians about this hurricane, and grieve at how we approach those who need us most. It is no wonder to me that much of the world despises evangelical believers. We must not try to sit in God’s seat. I wonder how our Christian brothers and sisters in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast respond to the assessments of those who sit outside and analyze.
There were many brothers and sisters in Christ on the Coast and in New Orleans. Our task is not to give “armchair answers”. Our task is to be redemptive.
Many innocent people perished on the Coast, in New Orleans, in the tsunami, and on 9/11. Many innocent people perish daily around the world. And many wonder why (Isaiah 57:1). When I consider good people who are suffering, I think of my wife, my brother, Reilly, our good friend Debbie Holbrook, whose husband is a missionary, and others. Of course, many of you know of Rebecca Petrie, whose husband is also a missionary, and yet others (whom I shall not name), who have been beaten and robbed while serving the Lord. All of these are great Christians.
The answers concerning suffering and tragedy lie somewhere between the Sovereign Lord and our free will. Some chose to suffer for His sake as He did for ours; some simply reap the results of mortality or genetics. Others suffer the evil that inhabits our fallen planet. Our message is salvation, not condemnation; it is eternal not temporal; it is hope not helplessness. We can do all things through Christ. We can believe Romans 8:28 that out of all things, He works good. And we can know that whatever happens in this life_it’s not the end.
Who is to Blame?
One of the tragedies of any disaster is blame. It is one of the darkest clouds and fiercest winds in any storm. Some will blame God, others will blame some political party or someone they dislike. Somehow they believe blame will heal the hurts. It does not; in fact, it adds to the hurt.
I do believe that tests, while often tragic, make us better and stronger. Since World War II no American president has faced greater crisis than George W. Bush. While I believe there was governmental failure on local, state, and federal levels (and usually is in any tragedy), our task is to pray for our leaders_all of them. And our task is to help those who suffer.
It is our enemy Satan who wants our destruction and wants us to destroy each other. We must resist him in every way. We must focus on how to build one another up and strengthen the weak places. What can we do? We can pray for the wounded. We can be diligent and righteous before God. We can exercise good judgment. We can reach out financially and physically to the afflicted (see Matthew 25:31-46). And we can live each day as though it was our last one here and prepare to meet the Judge of all.
It is amazing how tragedy changes our perspective. Soap and water, electricity, or a telephone become a great blessing. Suddenly, what we thought was a problem becomes nothing. Loving relationships and people we hardly knew become vital to survival. My prayer is that I can be a positive influence in a negative season_that I can pass the test and that we all will. Thanks for your time, love and support. We need you now more than ever. May the God of peace keep your heart and mind.
Scripture Reference: Isaiah, Romans, Matthew, Luke