FM Helping Hands in Katrina-ravaged Mississippi

The violent sound of Hurricane Katrina, ripping, flooding and wrenching its way inland from the US Gulf Coast last August was irrepressible. Then it passed, leaving a tranquil but ugly wasteland of destruction and death.

The « invisible » Gulf coast of Mississippi, little reported by the media, suffered over 300 deaths, many by drowning from the 30-foot storm surge that Katrina’s winds pushed inland for more than a kilometer. Thousands of homes and stores just collapsed or were sucked out to sea, leaving the foundation and a slab with steps running up to the floor level. If they remained standing, many homes were flooded up to the 3rd story. Rain poured through gaping holes in roofs, leaving waterlogged interiors that could only be salvaged if stripped to the studs and reconstructed, re-furnished. But who would do all that work? Local skilled tradesmen were busy resuscitating their own premises.

Within hours of Katrina’s passing, Acting Superintendent Lewis Bunn of the Free Methodist Gulf Coast Conference was in the worst-impacted areas. Assessing the damage, Lewis would discern how our denomination might respond. In due course, collaborating with Amish and Mennonite relief agencies, the FMC’s Bishops’ Fund resources were used to lease Camp Gospel, a retreat and training centre of the Gospel Singers Association of America located in Pass Christian, Mississippi. This town of 7000 had taken the brunt of Katrina and much of it had been reduced to rubble. Perhaps 3/4 of those residents are no longer there – most have not come back because there is little to nothing to come back to.

Camp Gospel, situated on the beautiful wide beaches running along the whole Mississippi coast, became the residence, mess hall and meeting centre for the volunteers – FMs, Amish and Mennonites mingling. Ken Lawrence and wife Lee from Michigan drove down in their RV, accepting an invitation to become the hosts and foreman for the FM volunteers involved in mucking out waterlogged homes and in reconstruction (repairs, roofing, electrical, insulation and gyproc). Women also could help in relief kitchens and food and clothing distribution centres.

By mid-March this year over 600 Free Methodists had responded to Lewis and the Lawrences – including 12 who journeyed from four Ontario churches. Whitby FMC heard about it, connected with Lewis, then put out the word to other churches. Snowbirds Ralph and Dawna Monette of Almonte FMC caught the vision. Enroute to Florida in January they diverted to Pass Christian, investing several weeks in support to the relief effort. Following suit in February, Ken and Dianne Richards of Dresden FMC, driving back from an Arizona vacation, made Camp Gospel their home for two weeks.

The Canadian connection grew in March. Grant and Olwen Sigsworth from Whitby flew into still-beleaguered New Orleans and drove an hour east to Pass Christian for a week. While there, a whole carload arrived from Almonte FMC, bearing Assistant Pastor Rob de Vlugt, Gord Hay, Bob Anderson, Stewart Elder and Scott Barkell. Inspired by Monettes’ e-mailed stories and photos, these five intrepids felt Katrina’s call and couldn’t wait. They committed to 28 hours of driving straight through to Mississippi, using their talents there during an intensive week of construction including upgrades to volunteer sleeping facilities at Camp Gospel. That same week, having heard that Ken Lawrence’s FM Care Team vehicles needed some repairs, mechanic Brian Gallagher of Chapel Ridge FMC and a Mississauga friend arrived for a 2-day stint at Camp Gospel. Ken was ecstatic!

God’s provision took other forms as well. A Christian layman from Indiana arrived just after Katrina and led in developing a beachside relief facility containing two big-top tents. One became « God’s Katrina Kitchen » where up to 1500 free meals continue to be served daily including takeouts and everyone is welcome – locals, contractors, volunteers, transients and anyone who walks into the tent. Dawna spent her day chopping onions and carrots, washing pans, etc. turning her hand to any job that needed to be done. She and others produced 200-250 take-out meals daily for volunteers working in homes.

The other tent serves as a Distribution Centre for free clothing, food and household effects. Volunteers including Dianne have helped to sort tons of clothing that come in from donors and put them on hangars and racks, or collect groceries to fill orders placed by locals. Olwen worked there to register people arriving, getting to talk with them and hear their stories. Many were heart wrenching; some people still are traumatized or feeling helpless to cope with their situations. Grant worked there some days to flatten hundreds of cardboard boxes that come through the Center.

The local people were so grateful for the contribution which volunteers have made to bringing back some normalcy to their lives. The idea that Canadians would go that far was meaningful to them. The reward for all the volunteers in Pass Christian? New friends, Christian fellowship, opportunities to serve and witness and show compassion, memories to last a lifetime, and surely God’s « well-done » for showing that because He cares, we care and must do our best to show His love when disaster strikes.

The needs for volunteers will continue indefinitely. You can still help. Contact Lewis Bunn via
[email protected].

Grant Sigsworth is a member of the Whitby Free Methodist Church in Ontario.