In early February, a severe tornado ripped through Central Mississippi, damaging or destroying homes, businesses, and churches, and injuring more than 60 people. Hattiesburg’s largest PCA church, First Presbyterian, did not sustain any structural damage; however, several members lost their homes, as did others within the church’s community. The staff and members of First Presbyterian Church (FPC) immediately sprang into action to help those in need.

The storm hit on a Sunday evening, and within 30 minutes of the tornado’s touchdown, Sherry Lanier, MNA’s disaster response facilitator, was on the phone with First Presbyterian pastors to assess the situation. The next morning, several deacons, elders, and pastors met at the church and started trying to contact families in the affected areas. Church leaders also asked parish shepherding teams to call members in their local parishes to find out if anyone needed assistance. On Tuesday, a little over 24 hours after the storm hit, FPC staff members were meeting with Lanier, working on a game plan to care for church members and help the broader community.

“We responded quickly because we love our people and we love our city,” says Dr. Sean Lucas, First Presbyterian’s senior minister. “If our people needed help, then we wanted to help them. We are the body of Christ; if one member suffers, we all suffer together. And once we help our people, then we wanted to help those in our city who had no one else caring for them.”

Prepared to Serve

The Saturday following the storm, FPC turned its already-scheduled missions conference into a service opportunity. It worked with MNA to recruit more than 100 volunteers from the church and surrounding presbyteries. A number of volunteers went to help the three FPC families whose homes were destroyed by the storm. Another large group of volunteers headed to Hattiesburg’s east side to rebuild severely damaged homes in the area around Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church.

In 2006, FPC partnered with the historically African-American Ebenezer MBC to form Hope for Hattiesburg. The ministry was to serve Hattiesburg’s lower-income neighborhoods, particularly those still rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. For several years, teams from PCA churches have been coming to FPC to do cross-cultural ministry through Hope for Hattiesburg. “We have been rebuilding and refurbishing houses on the east side of town for a while now,” says Lucas, “so we already have structures to help us in the much harder work of rebuilding after the tornado.”

FPC will continue to open its facilities to host volunteer teams that can spend a weekend working in Hattiesburg. MNA is coordinating and scheduling the weekend work teams, and FPC will provide their work orders.

Word and Deed, Souls and Bodies

If love for its church and city compelled FPC to respond quickly after the tornado, its holistic approach to outreach since then has been driven by Scripture’s call to meet people’s spiritual and physical needs. “The Scriptures call us not only to care for people’s souls,” says Lucas, “but to care for their bodies as well.”

“We only care for human beings as humans well when we care for them body and soul,” says Lucas. “It is part of the spiritual mission of the church.”

He cites Matthew 4:23 and 9:35, which describe Jesus’ ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing. “So it is fitting,” explains Lucas, “that our own ministry involve word and deed, souls and bodies.”

A Lasting Impact

Now that the initial energy given to debris removal, tarp roofing, and rebuilding has dissipated, it has become life as usual for most. But this is where Lucas sees a unique opportunity for the church. “We are here for the long term,” he says. “[We] have already been involved in rebuilding places since 2006.”
Lucas points to east Hattiesburg and the Ebenezer community where FPC has been working for many years as an example. “They know that we worship over there … and are involved in the life of the community. So we are looking for long-term impact that will be measurable over a lifetime of friendships and partnerships in affected areas.”

“I think because of Hurricane Katrina,” says Lucas, “we have been conditioned to move quickly now when disaster strikes and to consider not just our own but those around us.”  The FPC staff and elders have seen firsthand how their church community has rallied to care for one another, for their brothers and sisters on the east side of Hattiesburg, and beyond.

“While no one wishes for a disaster,” says Lucas, “it is a God-given opportunity to live out the Gospel and to have a platform to speak about Jesus.”

For updated information on relief efforts, including how to register as a volunteer or make a donation, visit pcamna.org or call Sherry Lanier at 678-294-3012.