On the Sunday after Katrina hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast our pastor was talking about the terrific need in the area. Jane Money was sitting in front of me and she turned around, at the same exact time we both said “We are suppose to go”. And we were. Through an amazing series of events Jane and I became the first members of the Alabama Nursing Fellowship to work recovery after a hurricane. The reflections that follow were written during that time. It was an amazing, scary, tiring, exciting and blessed time in our lives. Neither of us will ever forget it.
When you first see Bay Vista Baptist Church it seems a pretty ordinary church. Now, of course, the steeple lies in the heap of garbage and clutter across the street. The front that before had displayed stained glass windows is now covered with plastic sheeting. The sign is broken and battered by the storm but still proclaims, “Love your Neighbor”.
On this first Sunday afternoon what would normally be a parking lot is now a drive through pick up station for groceries and ice. The sidewalks around the building now are littered with diapers, personal care items, and clothing.
Hurricane Katrina changed the landscape of this church, but not its heart.
Most every building has been affected by the storm. The sanctuary is littered with sleeping bags and clothing as the back windows behind the baptistery are propped up with 2 X 4s. On either side of the choir loft there is a makeshift bedroom for volunteers.
The education building is now a hotel of sorts with people from all over the country sleeping on cots, sleeping bags, and foam pads. The roof is partially torn from the 2nd story and many rooms have been flooded. There are “Do not use” signs in all the toilets and bottled water around the sinks for brushing teeth and hand gel for sanitizing hands.
Move over to the old sanctuary and administrative offices and the damage is more evident. The pastor’s study is an interesting room. The ceiling tiles are gone and debris litters the room. His bookshelves, however, seem unharmed. It is not in use because of the damage. The front offices are now buzzing with staff members and church members trying to keep the volunteers and donations organized. The large kitchen and open area that has probably served as a fellowship hall prior to Katrina is full of groceries and worker bees filling bags to be taken outside for pickup. It looks like a grocery store warehouse. Large fans are running to dry out the water damage and hopefully keep the ceiling from coming down.
The Sunday before Katrina hit the pastor of this church knew. He told his congregation that it was coming and that it would be bad. He told them to prepare and as soon as it was over to bring what they had to the church and be prepared to minister. He had attempted to have the church set up as a Red Cross disaster relief site but had been refused because it was a “church”. That obviously did not matter now as official or not it WAS the Red Cross disaster relief site.
The library and office of the Children’s Ministry Director is now our little medical clinic. All of Natalie’s work has been shoved to the back of the room and shelves that once held books now hold sample medications and supplies. The ceiling tiles are missing, the soggy carpet has been removed and the tile underneath is coming up one tile at a time from the moisture. When Jane and I arrived on September 10th we were expecting to set up our own first aid station (and we had her Expedition packed in preparation) but instead we found a “clinic” already operating on the site. There was a thoracic surgeon, Dr. John Nesbitt, from Nashville, TN, along with four nurse practitioners. They had been seeing patients both in the makeshift clinic and going out into the community. There were supplies, including prescription drugs. The Lord’s timing was amazing! They were ready to leave but were very concerned that there was no medical person to take over the clinic when we walked in followed closely by Dr. Brian White. We got a brief overview from Dr. Nesbitt and took over the clinic. We saw over a dozen patients for first aid and minor traumas while we were trying to organize the clinic supplies.
The church nursery became our sleeping quarters. For a few nights just the two of us were there but after that there was a stream of different ladies joining us night after night.
Move out to the back of the church and you find yourself in a compound of workers. Trucks are being unloaded, a huge white tent is being raised in the back of the yard, and in one corner there is an area for food preparation under tents that are set up on the asphalt parking lot. Three Red Cross ERVs are sitting there to be loaded with food that will be taken out to the community, 750 meals a day.
There is nothing typical or ordinary about this church. This church is not a building. It is a vibrant, living Body of Christ.
The pastor, Brother Kevin, is a soft-spoken young man with a joyful countenance despite the fact that his home was devastated by Katrina. His wife and five children are evacuated to Panama City, FL. I only know that through the church staff. He never complains or even discusses his personal loss.
The personalities of this loving, living church are many and varied.
Josh, the youth minister, is now the “yard boss”. He is running around with an orange vest on directing traffic, parking semi trucks, directing the unloading of trucks, U-Haul trailers, and cars. His pregnant wife is in and out of the compound.
Minister of music Josh has taken over the early morning volunteer meeting and the organization of the volunteers.
Sandy, a church member, is a schoolteacher and a victim of the storm. Her school is damaged and closed so she is devoting her time-all day, everyday to the grocery warehouse. She is in charge of this area and the volunteers working here.
Cindy is also a church member. She lost everything in the storm and she no longer has a job because the business where she worked was also destroyed. She is also working all day, everyday helping with the volunteers.
Randy, a retired policeman, is not a staff member but very much a part of this church’s life. He is a deacon, Sunday School teacher, etc. He is a very stern and take charge person. He has from the beginning been very protective of us. There is a sadness about Randy and I found out late in the week that he lost his wife to kidney and heart disease 3 years ago. Her birthday and their 25th wedding anniversary would have been this month. He shares the long illness, failed transplant, and ultimate home going of his wife with us. His grandson Benjamin is frequently at his side.
Then there is Dr. Brian White, Captain in the U S Air Force, stationed at Keesler and a member of Bay Vista. He is 29 years old and was chief resident/Internal medicine at the base hospital, which is now shifted on its foundation from the meeting of the bay, and the gulf at its site. He is such a blessing to us. He has such a sweet spirit and pleasant countenance. His faith is evident by his conversation and his actions. He shares it freely. Watching him work with the victims of the storm has been such a blessing. He commented that the storm was such a great equalizer. He liked the idea that everyone would now be on the same level. He certainly treated everyone the same. It was so refreshing to get to know him and to see him work.
Pastor Wes is the coordinator, leader for the Southern Baptist Convention group from Pennsylvania/New Jersey. He also is a sweet spirited man, soft spoken and calm. It was his request for nurses that brought us to Bay Vista. He manages his workers with a quiet, calming manner. Like so many people at this sight his countenance reflects his deep faith.
Amy and her college age daughter are here with the Pennsylvania/New Jersey group. They both have beautiful, radiant smiles. Amy does “everything”! One day she will work with the kitchen crew and the next day she will be with the chainsaw crew. She works so hard but always has a smile on her face.
There is also a crew here from New Jersey that is very interesting. Four deacons and their friend from a New Jersey church (not a Baptist church) loaded a van and trailer with roofing, building supplies, mechanic tools, added their tents and food and headed to Biloxi to help. They pitched their tent in a lot across the street and then were invited by Brother Kevin to move into the church. They just went out early everyday and found someone who needed their help and went to work. They cut trees, repaired roofs, whatever needed to be done, they did it. They didn’t look like our idea of deacons here in the south but they had the hearts and minds of Jesus. One day they worked on the roof over our clinic and it was refreshing to hear their joyful conversation as they worked together. It was 100 degrees in the shade and they were working on the roof in the direct sun. They were an inspiration to us everyday
One very touching story was that of a truck driver who came to Bay Vista accidentally (although I believe that all of us were there by divine appointment). He had a truckload of Clorox and for some reason he couldn’t get to the place he needed to deliver it so he pulled in at Bay Vista. Why not? It seemed every other truck with nowhere to go wound up there. When he got out and asked if he could unload the truck full of Clorox men on the churchyard began to weep. There were so many people who needed Clorox to clean up their flooded homes and here it was. He hung around for a while and took in all that was going on. He then drove the semi back home (up north). By his statement he was not a religious man but after a few days he got in his own truck and drove back to help. He told his friends he didn’t know what was going on at the church but it was something like he had never seen and he was drawn back. He shared his story with Jane in the clinic after she had taken care of his blistered feet. Working on asphalt all day in 100 degree weather is tough on your feet. By the end of the week he was handing out gospel tracts and sharing his testimony.
Some other characters I remember are:
Bill Spicer-75 year old gentleman that worked the food area and scalded his foot with boiling water
Kat who was a frequent flier at the clinic, we saw her several times a day
Dr. Gallup-also interesting
A flower child nurse from Honolulu who stopped by on her way to ground zero and kept us up all night one wandering around
Andy and Tammy Hood-a judge and his wife from Avery,MS
Michelle Sloan-Tammy’s sister
Amber Bhatt-Colorado,student nurse
There are no words adequate to describe this experience. It was such a blessing of God to be there, to literally see prayers answered EVERY SINGLE DAY.
From transfer truck loads of Clorox to peanut butter miracles happened at Bay Vista Baptist Church and I am so thankful that I got to be a very small part of the miracle.