“You’re going to have to go.” William Beal recalls the words of the police officer who led him to a bus that was evacuating residents from New Orleans’ French Quarter in late August. Two weeks later, outside the Hirsch Coliseum shelter in Shreveport, La., Beal sits under a BGEA Rapid Response Team canopy with chaplain Lamar Wick. His emotions close to the surface, Beal’s eyes perpetually glisten; tears fill the wrinkles that crease his face. He talks of being homeless for 20 years and of sleeping in his car. He computes that Katrina is his third hurricane, having weathered Betsy in ’65 and Camille in ’69.
“I’m 71 years old,” Beal says. A tear rolls off his nose, and there is silence as Beal seems to contemplate memories. Wick curls his arm around Beal’s shoulder. “This is my buddy,” Wick says, struggling to restrain his own emotions. “This is my buddy.”
In an earlier conversation, Wick had led Beal in a prayer to receive Christ into his life. Afterward, he handed Beal a Gospel of John. “I can’t read,” Beal replied. Wick suggested that he or another Response Team member read a chapter to Beal during his visits to the tent. Beal was pleased with the arrangement. When asked if the reading has given him hope, his eyes again fill with tears, and he replies, “Yep. It’s giving me a lot of it.”
People Loving People
Many who attended the “His Presence in Crisis” evangelism Conference at the Billy Graham Training Center in mid-August are now putting their training into practice. Blue-shirted chaplains with BGEA’s Rapid Response Team are ministering in Baton Rouge, Gretna and Shreveport, La.; Biloxi and Kiln, Miss.; Mobile, Ala.; Houston, Texas; and other cities housing displaced people, such as Charlotte, N.C., and Grand Rapids, Mich.
“When we talk about chaplains, we’re not talking about preaching,” says Jack Munday, leader of BGEA’s Rapid Response Team. “It’s coming alongside people and loving them and being available to share the Gospel with them.” Munday says teams are seeing people come to Christ left and right. He says, “You can’t walk through the shelters without talking to people-they want to talk.”
Cots are lined up in rows in the arena and exhibit hall at the River Center shelter in Baton Rouge. People sit on them, lie on them and eat meals from styrofoam containers on them. Often cots are pushed together to mark family living areas. One space sports a cardboard fence, complete with a chalk-drawing picket fence and flowers. Newspapers, portable television sets and radios give some relief from the seemingly endless waiting, which is punctuated with intercom announcements about jobs, medical assistance and housing opportunities. Shelter “neighborhoods” change as new residents replace those who pack and wheel their belongings in grocery carts to vehicles waiting outside.
The thousands of people brought 80 miles northwest from New Orleans to Baton Rouge for temporary housing have made the American Red Cross-run River Center shelter a key location for Response Team deployment.
“You [can't] realize the impact of seeing 1,000 people on cots,” said Michael Lea, a chaplain who came from Maryland with six others to minister for a week at the Baton Rouge shelter. People want to tell their stories, Lea says. “That’s the way they process.” Lea and his team walk through the aisles of the displaced, kneel beside cots, listen, ask questions, talk–and often weep–before asking for permission to pray.
Margie Clark was in tears when Lea first spoke to her.
After her husband, Freddie, and one of their sons had broken a hole through their roof to escape the floodwaters in their New Orleans home, they had been taken to the Superdome, then to a shelter in Arkansas and finally to a granddaughter’s home in Baton Rouge before the granddaughter, tired of the houseful, asked them to leave. “[One of the sons] was really angry,” said Lea. “Here they had been thrown out of a relative’s house and told to go to a shelter after they had lost everything.”
Margie saw her situation in a more hopeful light after Lea prayed for her. “It changed how I saw everything,” she said. “My house is under 12 feet of water, but that’s material. I know that God loves me. Jesus died for my sins, and that was a greater love than you could ever imagine.”
In addition to listening to and praying with shelter residents, Response Team members often assist residents in practical ways–connecting them with the right people to find jobs, housing, clothes or medical attention. For Lea, this included cleaning up a young boy who had vomited on himself and his mother at the crowded entrance to the shelter. “They don’t [necessarily] remember us,” says Lea, “but they remember the blue shirt.”
Sitting on her double bed of two cots pushed together, Marie Dupre resides to the right of her six grandchildren, ranging in age from 3 months to 10 years. Dupre tells her story of waiting out the hurricane: “The house moved from one side to the other–like a dentist pulls out a tooth.” Dupre says she and her grandchildren were stranded for two days with no electricity or water in her house, which felt “like 125 degrees.” Dupre had not heard from her two daughters, the children’s mothers, since she arrived at the shelter. “It’s been a hard struggle,” she said. While one chaplain held the 3-month-old, another spoke tenderly with her and asked for specific ways to pray for her. Dupre told the Response Team members that Jesus was all she had.
Some 260 miles to the north of Baton Rouge, at the Hirsch Coliseum shelter on the Louisiana State fairgrounds, BGEA had permission to set up a Rapid Response Team tent, complete with Bibles, devotional studies and other literature. Although Response Team members also go into the coliseum to talk and pray with people, much ministry happens at the tent.
Chaplain Kevin Shaner says that he has heard story after story of people stranded on rooftops for days without food or water–and of some people who had babies die in their arms. He says that a Christian woman, Margaret B. Smith, had scratch marks from a nephew who tried to hang on to her as she swam through the floodwaters. Smith lost nine family members to the flooding, and she is a frequent visitor to the BGEA tent.
Tears and perspiration mingle on Smith’s face as she clutches Shaner’s hand, once again recounting the horrific ordeal of leaving her home in the Garden District of New Orleans: “We were six days without running water. We used swimming pool water to drink. There was so much [water] pressure, people were pushed off their porches. You’re looking at a whole lake coming into the city. There were bodies all around us. People were jumping off the bridge because they knew they were going to die. I was on the bridge three days. That happened.” Throughout her story, Smith pauses and turns her head away to collect herself. She tucks short dred locks behind her ear. “I think I know what hell looks like,” Smith says. “I had to swim like I never swam.” But through it all, Smith says, “The Lord was my hands and feet.”
Shaner cries and prays with Smith. When she visits, Shaner says, “Many times I just let her cry.”
Tracey Piquet is another regular at the tent. Shaner found the 17-year-old girl inside the coliseum walking in circles saying, “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do.” He got her some water and said, “Let’s talk.” She said she was afraid to go to hell and wasn’t sure God loved her, or if He was angry with her. Piquet had thought about suicide. Shaner said that as they talked it appeared that she had knowledge of Christianity but not a relationship with Christ. Shaner prayed with her to accept Christ and gave her a Bible. He explained that if anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation and old things are passed away. “I don’t want to serve sin anymore,” Piquet said. Shaner instructed that if the devil started bugging her, she should say, “You have no more control of my life–it’s at the Cross.” Another chaplain chimed in, “Tell him he’ll have to take it up with Jesus!” Tracey laughed quietly.
Beaming, she proclaimed: “I got Christ in my heart now. Old things are passed away. I’m going to keep on until I see Jesus face-to-face.” Shaner said that since they prayed, Piquet has been out on the arena floor ministering and praying with people.
The Church as One
“Everyone has something they bring in servant evangelism,” says chaplain Robin Brungard as she describes her experience with the Rapid Response Team.
Referring to church and denominational squabbles, Brungard says: “We have a bunch of franchises that compete against each other; we don’t talk well of each other sometimes. But in this case, we have the universal Body of Christ really coming together as one.” And in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita teams will continue to come together, ministering and being the Church together as they weep with the displaced and offer listening ears, hugs, prayers, Bibles, and most important, the knowledge of an everlasting, tear-less life with Jesus.
In the words of Margie Clark, “The devil meant it for bad, but God meant it for good.”