Text: II Corinthians 4:8-9; Romans 8:28-39
Editor’s Note: the following eyewitness report to Presbyterian constituents in Mississippi helps all of us understand better the challenges and ongoing needs of the Gulf Coast. See elsewhere on this Web site for information on how to contact Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and support New Orleans-Gulf Coast recovery efforts.
Beleaguered but unvanquished–two of William Faulkner’s favorite words. They describe the people of God who are called according to His purpose; people like you who have risen to the occasion, to bring light to the darkness, hope in the midst of despair, food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to those who only have the clothes they’re wearing, encouragement to those who have lost it all.
My friend Ted Hanawalt is the pastor of the First Church, Bay St. Louis, a church we thought had been totally destroyed. Last Sunday I told you that when we found the church still standing tall with only minor damage, we rejoiced. The church had a watermark on the outside six feet, six inches high. Six feet of water surrounded that house of God, but inside there was only a little mud on the floor in the foyer. The Bibles and hymnbooks (the new blue ones that people complained about) were bone dry. I know some Ph.D. hydrologists at the Army Corps of Engineers who can’t explain that, but God can!
Dr. Ted came back this week. He’s 77 years old, a retired military chaplain with a distinguished career. His home was destroyed. A popup camper floated into his front yard and then sank. Ted and his wife cleaned it out as best they could (the camper was full of mud) and that is where they now call home. Beleaguered but unvanquished.
One day last week, I went back to Dr. Ted’s church for the third time. He was there. So too was one of our own, Sam Thompson, along with Taylor Jabour who regularly attends a Sunday school class here, and a fellow named Brad English, a realtor from Crested Butte who came to Vicksburg because he wanted to help. We sent Sam to the coast with a donated popup camper loaded down with supplies and a single job description: A Hunter of Needs. Sam and his crew were helping Dr. Ted cut up downed trees on the church grounds.
I talked with Dr. Ted. He had a hard time getting out the words. Already there were several members of the church confirmed dead. Others were missing and he knew they stayed to ride out the storm. One couple in their eighties, was last heard from in a 911 call. They said they were trying to climb out on the roof. The house is now a pile of rubble. Dr. Ted broke down and cried. I cried with him. He’s a tough man. Probably tougher than anyone you or I know, and as I held him he said, “I can’t do this on my own; I need help.” He told me he needed people to help clean the church. He said the power line outside was hot but there weren’t any electricians who could get the power turned back on to the church. And he said he needed strong backs and loving hearts to help his people because they were mostly elderly. I said, “Dr. Ted, we’ve got your back.” We gathered in a circle there in the front yard of the church, and one of my friends, Dr. K.C. Ptomey, pastor of Westminster Church in Nashville, led us all in one of the most powerful and profound prayers I’ve ever heard.
The next day, Stacy Waites, a certified counselor and one of our own from Vicksburg, made her way down in a popup camper and she’s still down there, along with 20 or so other members of the church who went down for the weekend to work hard and share the love of Christ. (And right now there are work groups in Diamondhead and Ocean Springs from all over the U.S.A. Tim Brown said he had 80 people from various Presbyterian Churches coming in tomorrow self-sustained and ready to work!) Stacy is helping in more ways than offering her compassionate counsel. She too bears the job description “Hunter of Needs.” She is bringing the gift of encouragement to Dr. Ted and to many in their community. Spiritual power is coming back on in Bay St. Louis because God is working through people like Sam Thompson and Stacey Waites. Miraculously, Stacey found an electrician who restored power and fixed the air conditioner at the church. Yesterday, a team from First Church of Vicksburg, spent the whole day cleaning the church and grounds, and this morning, the people of God are back in business, beleaguered but unvanquished, and right now on this Lord’s Day the community is worshiping at the Presbyterian Church in Bay St. Louis!
West down Highway 90 on the Pearl River, which forms the State line, is a little down called Pearlington. It wasn’t on my map. It used to be a gorgeous little town, a sportsman’s paradise of 1600 people. Elevation – 8 feet above sea level. Charlie and Nancy Russ live there. There isn’t a Presbyterian Church in Pearlington (not yet, that is!) so they go to the Long Beach Church. Charlie had a sawmill. A barge and a towboat now sit on top of it. Charlie and Nancy’s home now sits cattywompus. (I know that’s not a word, but it’s the only way to describe it.) Fourteen homes once lined the bank of the Pearl River on their street. Only two are still standing. Four families rode out the storm in Charlie and Nancy’s home. One family had a baby with them. They put the baby in a Tupperware box, like a little boat, as they fought for higher ground, and all I could think of was Moses in the bulrushes. By God’s grace, they survived.
Katrina wiped out Pearlington, but there are people still there. Two days ago, I saw people living in 10X10 dog kennels with tarps stretched over the top. Only a few people have the remnants of a home. People like Nancy and Charlie Russ who work each day removing debris from their house. A ten-foot diameter hole opened up in their living room floor. The windows and doors had blown out. Three feet of debris from the Pearl River filled their home. The whole house was knocked off its foundation. But they are cleaning it up. They built that house and cut every stick of lumber at their sawmill.
Beleaguered but unvanquished. Sustained by faith. Uplifted and encouraged by the prayer meetings we have held there two days in a row, holding hands around that gaping hole in the floor. Empowered by the knowledge that people like you care. … empowered by the prayer offered by my new friend Dr. Steve McConnell of the Presbyterian Church in Liberty Corner, N. J. Steve was with me the other day and I said, “Steve, we need to hear a first class New Jersey Presbyterian prayer,” and we gathered at the river around a big hole in the floor and found new strength in prayer. …
“For we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed. We are perplexed but not despairing. We are persecuted but not forsaken. Struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Cor. 4:8-9)
Beleaguered but unvanquished! And there are a lot of other folks like them. Many don’t even have a shell of a home in which to seek shade. Like Smokie and Cookie, who used to have a house right around the corner from Charlie and Nancy. I had a pickup loaded down with supplies and I literally had to twist Charlie’s arm to make him take a generator and some other equipment. What he really wanted to do was to take me to see Smokie. He’s been trying to get on disability for the past three years, and now Smokie’s family is living under some tarps that were up on sticks, like the Bedouin tents I’ve seen in the Holy Land. We gave him a generator and some drop lights and fans, a couple of tents, and some other supplies. That day, I told Smokie we were coming back, and you did. A crew from our church labored in Pearlington all day yesterday. They spent most of their time shoveling mud out of homes and a Methodist church. No one was there at the Methodist Church but Presbyterians. The doors of the church were opened so Blake Teller, Todd Boolos and Shane Upshaw and a group of Vicksburg Presbyterians went right in and started working.
Tomorrow morning, an 18-wheeler is rolling into Pearlington with the supplies they desperately need. It’s a 53-foot Polyvulc trailer full of the love of God communicated through Presbyterian gifts, particularly from the people of the Grace Covenant Church in Richmond, Va. God moved them to give, so last week they sold some securities and wired $90,000 to First Church of Vicksburg. The value of the materials and equipment in the back of that truck is just over $102,000, the eighth 18-wheeler we have sent to the coast to cover needs from Ocean Springs to Gulfport, from Bay St. Louis to Waveland, from Diamondhead to Pearlington. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many smaller trucks have hauled needed supplies out of the warehouse. Lord only knows! But I know this: that big old Polyvulc truck will offload at the Charles B. Murphy Elementary School, the new distribution center in Pearlington. … Do you realize that is wasn’t until the middle of last week that any sort of relief effort came to Pearlington? How do you spell relief? PRESBYTERIAN LOVE.
I can calculate the value in dollars, in cents. So far, we have raised and translated into meeting real human needs just under one million dollars. But there is no way I can begin to calculate the value in terms of the difference it will make, the hope it will bring, the encouragement it will offer to some wonderful new friends we have.
Why do we do it? Because we are Christians, we are Mississippians, we are Presbyterians, and we are called of God to be doers of the Word, not hearers only.
What do we need to do?
Pray. Pray for Charlie and Nancy, Smokie and Cookie, and Dr. Ted. Pray for Tim and Le Brown over in Ocean Springs. Pray for all our friends down on the coast and in the affected areas. Let’s pray for one another, too, because our calling is not easy.
Give. If you are tapped out right now, get on the phone and call your friends and family who live outside of Mississippi, and tell them what God is doing through your church. Ask them to give. Don’t ask for a little. Give them a very large and very specific challenge. We need to raise money so we can continue to meet the needs we encounter.
Volunteer. Cook meals for hungry evacuees in Vicksburg. Go work out in the warehouse. Take a day off, go to the warehouse and fill up the back of your pickup truck – like Ken Quackenbush did – and drive down to one of our distribution centers. Go down for a day to help Tim Brown and his church members sort through the rubble of what was once their homes. Do like Steve Wagner, and organize a work crew from your Sunday School class. Go down to the Coast with needed supplies, roll up your sleeves with 100 percent initiative. Just show up and start working. Find somebody who needs help. Shovel mud out of a Methodist church. Help run the distribution center in Pearlington. Go down and find a Charlie and Nancy Russ, and if all you can do is to sit in their cattywampus house and pray for them and with them, do it.
We too, are beleaguered, but we are unvanquished! God has given us a mission. He is guiding us each day to the people who need our help. He is lifting us up when we are ready to keel over. He is giving us strength. He is empowering us with new faith.
Steven S. Bryant is pastor of First Church, Vicksburg, Miss.