‘Unless the Lord Builds the House’

By Steve Starr   •   March 31, 2006

Imagine what could be accomplished if churches and Christian business owners in communities all over the United States came together to help families who had lost their homes in one of last year’s hurricanes. Imagine the Christian unity among denominations. Imagine devastated families who, seeing Jesus in the lives of others, would embrace Christ themselves. Imagine the Church really being the Church.

Chuck Billeaud retired in 1992 and returned with his wife, Kathy, to settle in southern Mississippi near his boyhood home. After Billeaud’s Army stint in Vietnam and 21 years of relocating from base to base in the Air Force, they purchased the house at 674 Mulberry Drive in Biloxi. The house was a respite, near the end of a quiet cul-de-sac that ends at Biloxi’s Back Bay. The bay was Mississippi-postcard pretty. The waterfront was framed in century-old oaks festooned with Spanish moss. Raccoons climbed over the back fence; ospreys nested in the trees. Their new home was a simple, ranch-style house with three small bedrooms on a concrete slab, and it was near their son and grandchildren. It was modest, but it was a refuge and it was home … until Aug. 29.

Hurricane Katrina hit Mulberry Drive with a powerful confluence of wind and water. The pretty bay turned ugly and swelled with a 30-foot tidal surge that took out every home at the end of the cul-de-sac with a punch and a counterpunch. The first hit was the surge coming up the bay; the second hit was worse, when the water fell back. The hydraulic force broke walls, flattened houses and flushed out everything from cars and furniture to the silverware in kitchen drawers.

The Billeauds rode out the storm with relatives in Birmingham, Ala. When they returned to Biloxi, they were homeless. Their refuge was leveled.

After Katrina, they purchased a trailer and stationed themselves in Gulfport, 12 miles from Mulberry Drive. Every morning for weeks Chuck picked through splintered 2-by-4s on his property to see what he could salvage. He wasn’t finding anything. About three weeks after Katrina, the Billeauds’ insurance adjuster came by. Two months later Chuck and Kathy got a report: “Sorry. It’s all water damage. You’re not covered.”

Chuck was near his breaking point. Already his son, whose home was severely damaged, had lost his faith in God. Chuck drove over to the Samaritan’s Purse outpost set up in the washed-out remains of the Seashore United Methodist Assembly camp to ask for help with his cleanup–and he asked for something more: “I sure need some Christian friends around now.”

The first Christians sent to help were chaplains from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s Rapid Response Team: Larry Randolph and Rosellen Reese from Rapid City, S.D., and Brian and Enid Johnson from Frederic, Wis. “We met Chuck in his driveway,” Brian Johnson recalls. “He poured out his heart to us. He told us about the storm. He told us his life story. He told us Kathy has cerebral palsy. And he told us he owed $45,000 on a house he didn’t have anymore. We prayed with him. We cried with him. And we assured him a work team would come by to help.”

Two days later a Samaritan’s Purse crew arrived to help Chuck clean up what once was his house. Something bright caught Chuck’s eye. “I looked down and there was this butter knife, part of our silverware set,” Chuck recalls. “I picked it up and put in my back pocket.”

When the crew finished their cleanup, Chuck joined the team in a prayer circle. He reached into his pocket, held up the butter knife and said, “This is the only thing I’ve got left other than my wife and my car. I found this in the dining room because it was glimmering–almost as if it were signaling hope, new light to our world. And that’s what you guys have done for us. You all have given us new light and new hope amid all this disaster, and I want you guys to have the knife.”

The work crew took the butter knife back to their base and shared Chuck’s story with the rest of the workers during team devotions. Because Brian Johnson had met the Billeauds previously, the butter knife story particularly pierced his heart. He recalled Franklin Graham’s challenge for churches all over the United States to “adopt” families whose homes had been devastated. Brian turned to his wife, Enid, and said, “We’ve got to build them a house.”

A week later the Johnsons carried the butter knife story back to Wisconsin, and Brian shared it with their pastor, Greg Lund, of Frederic Evangelical Free Church.

Frederic is a town of farmers and commuters, with a population of about 1,200, some 80 miles east of St. Paul, Minn. “Like many churches, we’d taken an offering for Katrina victims,” Lund says. “We were looking for a way to help, and we wanted to make this a Christ-centered project. I asked Brian to see if we could get the rest of the Frederic churches involved, to see if God would open the door.”

Johnson was terrified of public speaking, but he’d been a pharmacist in Frederic for 30 years and he knew most everyone. He shared the Billeauds’ story with his neighbors. He spoke at 11 church services, representing several denominations, in and around Frederic. Within three weeks, God had opened the door. All the churches agreed to help. Rapid Response chaplain Larry Randolph agreed to be the construction crew chief.

Brian called Chuck and Kathy with the news, “We want to rebuild your house.” The Billeauds were stunned. Later, Kathy asked Enid, “Why us? Why did you choose us?” Enid replied that they hadn’t chosen the Billeauds, God had. Kathy began to weep.

Enid says that God kept opening the doors for them, and they just kept walking through. Churches started raising funds and signing up volunteers. In tears, Brian remembers, “The first donation came from a little girl who brought in her piggy bank. She had $12 in pennies.”

Bryan Knauber, a 16-year-old student, designed a logo and a Web site for donations and officially dubbed the effort “The Butterknife House Project.”

T-Shirts were printed showing a cross linking Wisconsin to Mississippi and a quote from Psalm 127:1, “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain” (NIV). Shirts sold for $10 each, with all proceeds going toward the project.

Four Seasons Wood Products donated lumber. K-Wood Truss Rafters offered rafters at cost. Maxwell Plumbing and Heating donated materials and offered a work crew. Johnson Lumber sold materials at cost. SilverStone Transport offered a flatbed truck to carry the materials to Biloxi and a bus to carry the volunteers.

Family and friends donated a garage door in memory of Sgt. Andy Stevens, one of 10 Marines killed outside Fallujah, Iraq, by a roadside bomb Dec. 1.

Electricians volunteered their time, and their union donated $1,000 for materials.

A draftsman donated plans for a new house designed with specifications to accommodate Kathy’s cerebral palsy. The new house would be barrier-free and include a whirlpool bathtub to soak away her pain.

Frederic Elementary School set a goal to raise $640 to buy a stove for The Butterknife House. Children made a cardboard stove and set it in the school hallway for inspiration. Jars for spare change were placed in front of every classroom. Classes competed penny by penny. In the end the children raised $1,169.01. They held a parade and marched downtown with their penny jars to Affordable Quality Appliances to buy the stove at dealer cost–and gave the overage to help with other construction expenses.

Construction was planned with three teams of volunteers, about 75 workers in all. Retirees, farmers, homemakers, carpenters and plumbers all signed up to help. The First Methodist Church in downtown Biloxi volunteered to feed and house the work teams.

Frederic residents Rich and Maria Potvin signed up when their son, Nels, 9, asked his mom if they could help. After the project, Rich, a local banker, said, “I never worked so hard or had a better vacation.”

Joan Peterson, a retired Wisconsin State Trooper, signed up when Enid Johnson asked for her help. After the project Peterson said, “In law enforcement you often have to close yourself up. This project was all about opening up. I think of Philippians 2:4 where it says, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (NIV).

Construction started Jan. 17. After three days, the walls and part of the roof were up. Less than three weeks later, on Feb. 3, the house was finished. Brian Johnson asked the Billeauds to stay away on that day until 2 o’clock in the afternoon. That morning The Butterknife House was scrubbed and cleaned. Women placed scented candles in Kathy’s bathroom next to her new whirlpool tub, and they folded new towels into florets. The house was wrapped with a red ribbon and a bow.

Precisely at 2 p.m., Chuck and Kathy drove into their driveway. Kathy stepped out, looked at the house and broke into tears, sobbing, “Thank you. Thank You, dear Jesus.”

At the informal ceremony, one of the volunteers from Frederic read Proverbs 24:3, “By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established” (NIV), and the chorus, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” was sung softly, a cappella.

Brian asked Chuck and Kathy, their neighbors and the volunteers to form a circle around 674 Mulberry Drive. One by one, prayers enveloped the house.

Just before the ribbon across the front door was cut, the Billeauds were blessed with something even greater than a new home. Their son, Chuck Jr., stepped forward and said, “After we came back from the storm we were totally lost. We had absolutely nothing. My dad has always had faith. But for me it was a trying time; it made me ask a lot of questions. I was skeptical at first. But seeing this happen, it has restored my faith in God.”

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