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Long-term help, long-term ministry from Georgia Baptists


Celeste Pennington

Partners: Georgia associations and Mississippi churches "We have piles of people who need help," says Anita Johnson (white bow), the pastor's wife at Woodhaven Baptist Church, as she and church members discuss areas inundated by the floods of Hurricane Katrina with Larry Cheek, executive director of missions for Stone Mountain Association, and consultant Doyle Pennington. Cheek, center, is part of an alliance of 10 Atlanta area associations. He recommends that each association adopt a Mississippi church and its deluged community. "We could spend all our time and resources in this little area," he says.

PASCAGOULA, MISS. - Everywhere you turn are temporary signs boldly spray-painted on big sheets of plywood. One seems to catch the spirit of Mississippi Baptists: "Be thankful you're alive. Everything else can be fixed."

Yet, as Georgia Baptists are learning quickly, what all needs to be fixed here in the wake of Hurricane Katrina seems, well, massive.

"First Baptist Long Beach, is nothing but a slab," laments Charles Rodgers, associational missions director of Jackson County Association, as he scans a list of his and other Baptist churches situated along the hurricane-battered coast of Mississippi.

Katrina completely destroyed a church in Gulfport, he continues. "First Baptist, Orange Grove, is no longer functional."

In Rodgers' mind this issue looms large: "The insurance companies are saying the damage done by Katrina is due to flooding-and most don't have coverage for that because we are not located in a flood plain." Rodgers is contacting his pastors and asking, point blank, if they need financial help now. "I think we are going to have to take care of these churches ourselves."

He turns his head a moment to gather composure. "We are trying to secure our pastors and our churches. You are giving me hope today that we will do that."

Rodgers' appeal is to Larry Cheek, director of missions for Stone Mountain Association and member of the 10-association ARBAN (Atlanta Regional Baptist Association Network). He assures Rodgers that Georgia Baptists are in this now and for the long haul.

Recently Cheek was in the Mississippi Gulf to talk face-to-face with area pastors, to survey the damage firsthand, and to assess what short-term and long-term resources are needed and where. He was assisted by Georgia layman and consultant Doyle Pennington, who values the need for a rapid yet informed response.

While a college student, Pennington worked for an emergency medical service, so the dilemma he expresses in terms of triage: "When you have many people down, you may first help the one who is bleeding. But what about those with internal injuries? What is really needed does not always show."

Celeste Pennington

Thousands of Baptists "lost everything" Many Belle Fountain, Miss., Baptist Church families "lost everything." Georgia Baptist and consultant Doyle Pennington, left, and Larry Cheek, executive director of missions for Stone Mountain Association, far right, survey flood damage with home owner Eddie Allen who salvaged what he could, then gutted his house to the studs. Since agents are backed up with requests, Allen decided to start rebuilding without waiting for reimbursement from insurance companies. Georgia Baptists will aid many families, and churches, who face this same dilemma.

Not all area church buildings sustained visible damage from flooding and/or high winds. Yet many estimate that 60, 80 or more than 90 percent of their church family has "lost everything" in the flood. First Baptist Pascagoula has set aside two months' budget for times like this.

Other churches are operating closer to the razor's edge. In the wake of the disaster, most church members evacuated. Many are retirees on fixed incomes. Some will never return. "One of our members died," reports Hal Selby, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Ocean Springs, Miss. "The water rose and he didn't get out."

Fifteen miles from Pascagoula, Cheek reviewed the damage in Ocean Springs. At First Baptist, the congregation has teamed up with a restaurant to feed two hot meals a day to local officials, including the police and fire department, displaced members and volunteers. Since the hurricane, they have been ministering without a break or assistance from Southern Baptist Disaster Relief. "How big was the storm surge?" Cheek asks.

Block after block here, homes are just rubble. As he drives, Cheek is on his cell phone to confer with Jim Richardson, Disaster Relief coordinator for the Georgia Baptist Convention. "This is a large county," Cheek notes quietly. "The church is giving out. People need to give to them.

"Could we have feeding units down here? Do you have a shower unit that you could send this way?" Richardson discusses how to re-position equipment and volunteers.

As Cheek moves further west along the coast toward Biloxi and Gulfport, the damage is full blown. Racetrack Road in D'Iberville faces the coast. Behind it are trees, but little else, not even foundations of homes.

This neighborhood is literally pulverized. An anguished elderly woman with two toddlers in her back seat drives around and around what was her community of retirees and young families. "I'm trying to decide what to do," she says, bewildered. "I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do."

Pondering the enormity of this disaster, Georgia Baptists are deciding how best to assist these Katrina-ravaged communities of Mississippi. "How do you eat an elephant?" Pennington asks rhetorically. "One bite at a time."

Basically, that's what Cheek has in mind. This week he will be back in Mississippi establishing partnership between his Stone Mountain Baptist Association and Ocean Springs' Woodhaven Baptist Church. He will also check on similar opportunities for other associations. The Mississippi churches need partners with broad shoulders and big hearts.

"An association will adopt a church and its community," Cheek says. "Gwinnett and Noonday associations have already sent representatives down there. We will be scouting out possibilities for the associations of Henry County and Atlanta."