Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in September 2015. As flood waters from Hurricane Harvey rise in Houston, MNA Disaster Response is once again looking for donations and volunteers to minister to homes and hearts.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. It is also the 10th anniversary of my work with Mission to North America (MNA) Disaster Response. A decade ago, I had no idea that a car ride with a group of strangers would lead to a key position in this new ministry — a work that God has graciously used for His glory and for the good of so many.
Two days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I was traveling with several PCA leaders to First Presbyterian, a well-established church overlooking the Biloxi beach. We had three goals: to identify and assess the damage, help the church establish a disaster-relief outpost, and provide long-term assistance to its members, neighbors, and friends.
No camera could have adequately captured what we saw. Winds of more than 150 knots had driven a 20-foot tidal surge onto the shore, turning once-stately homes into rubble, their contents randomly strewn along the beach with the outgoing tide. Damage from Katrina’s winds was reported nearly 200 miles north of the coast.
As we drove along the beach my attention was drawn upward to leafless oak trees stripped bare by Katrina’s winds. In their place, clothes were blowing gently in the Gulf breeze. A line from one of my favorite novels, “The Old Man and the Sea,” sprang to mind. In just a few words Ernest Hemingway captured the hopelessness of Santiago, the poor Cuban fisherman. Hemingway wrote, “The sail was patched with flour sacks and furled looked like the flag of permanent defeat.” The clothes, flying like flags in the branches, represented the helplessness of so many whose lives had been violently interrupted, who were in desperate need, who looked permanently defeated.
That’s when our storytelling God reminded me of these words from Exodus that I read just days before the storm: “During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel — and God knew” (Exodus 2: 23-25).
As the people on the coast cried out to God, He heard, saw, and sent relief. In the days and years that followed, Jesus sent His church to the hopeless in order to display the hope of the Gospel.
In their helplessness the people cried out to a faithful God who heard, saw, and sent a deliverer. As the people on the coast cried out to God, He heard, saw, and sent relief. In the days and years that followed, Jesus sent His church to the hopeless in order to display the hope of the Gospel, a hope more glorious than the storm, a hope incarnated in both word and deed.
Love, when it’s incarnated in tangible acts of service and accompanied by the Word of Truth, is an unassailable apologetic for the Gospel. It’s hard, for instance, to argue with love when it’s attached to the working end of a shovel, or when it’s standing beside you as you “muck out” a layer of backed-up sewage from your toilet, or when it stands with you — shoulder to shoulder — dredging the silt from the nearby bay. It’s impossible to deny love that builds a shed in your backyard to store your few remaining possessions. Loves becomes concrete when a stranger offers you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and you’re both reduced to tears by so simple a gesture of love.
That’s what happened when Ashley Lane and her youth group from Venice, Florida, came to serve at Lagniappe Presbyterian Church in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Prior to this interaction, a homeowner had been standoffish, likely harboring some remnant of pride and still unable to accept grace, especially from strangers. But grace breaks through stubborn pride; it exposes physical and spiritual need, and ultimately it reveals a Savior who is drawn to brokenness and who sends His church to display the Gospel with shovels, sheds, and sandwiches.
God uses storms to reveal His grace.
In her book “Mystery and Manners,” Flannery O’Connor, the Southern writer, wrote, “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock; to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.”
God uses storms to shout and to draw big circles. He shocks and startles us so that grace might come alive — not only in those who have never believed but in believers, too, who sometimes suffer from Gospel amnesia.
That was Bill and Joyce Schulting’s experience. Months before Hurricane Katrina, Bill, an elder at First Presbyterian, Biloxi, had lost his job. Now, he and his family were threatened by the giant storm. As Katrina approached, the Schultings, mindful of FEMA warnings to evacuate, left their home in Ocean Springs. Days later they returned to nothing more than a slab and chimney. And just when life had reached a new low, their insurance company denied their claim. They were devastated, overcome by the injustice and uncertain of their future.
“I would not know the deep love of Jesus if God hadn’t taken everything away.” — Joyce Schulting
And yet, because they were secure in the Gospel faith — which functions best when all temporal trusts are exhausted — they slowly began to experience a deeper awareness of God’s love. With each passing month God’s grace was being applied by the Holy Spirit, pressed in through words of truth and tangible acts of mercy. One evening, while I was visiting the relief camp at First Presbyterian Church, I noticed a radical change in Joyce Schulting’s countenance. I asked her what had happened. She said, “I would not know the deep love of Jesus if God hadn’t taken everything away.”
Sometimes, a storm can reveal the breadth of God’s grace.
Captain Jim Taylor had a similar encounter. Taylor was in his home when the eye of the storm passed a block away in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Afterward, dozens of church groups swarmed the house — rebuilding, painting, and undoing the damage of falling trees, floods, and flying debris. “I elected to ride it out here,” Taylor said, “because I have spent my entire career at sea dodging storms.”
Later, in search of the college students who helped paint his house, Taylor stopped by Lagniappe Presbyterian Church, the MNA camp that helped him through his recovery. He wanted to thank them before they returned home to Tennessee. Though the team had already left, he talked with one of the staff, who naturally invited him to church. Taylor was reluctant but agreed to go. “I remember thinking,” he says, that [church] was “a waste of time on me.” He left the service certain he’d never return. But then a strange thing happened. “I woke up the next morning,” he said, “with one of the songs in my head: ‘Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder.’” For some inexplicable reason he went back the next Sunday and the Sunday after that. “Still going to this day,” he says.
For some, Katrina was God drawing large and startling figures, drawing them to His grace.
A Growing, Needed Ministry
MNA Disaster Response continues to mobilize the PCA’s efforts of bringing the hope of the Gospel to victims of hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and floods. A ministry that started with one director and a facilitator now includes seven regional specialists and an administrative aide. Under the leadership Arklie Hooten, the next decade looks even more hopeful. Renovations are underway to transform a former furniture showroom in Rome, Georgia, into a warehouse that will pre-position relief supplies and serve as a training facility. Likewise, regional specialists continue to equip and mobilize presbyteries and churches around the country.
For more information please contact MNA facilitator Sherry Lanier at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about MNA Disaster Response, visit pcamna.org.