On a rainy Tuesday afternoon—August 30, 2005—the day after Hurricane Katrina hit the United States’ Gulf Coast, Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplains and Samaritan’s Purse workers pulled out of BGEA’s Charlotte, N.C., headquarters parking lot and headed toward Alabama. Upon arriving in Mobile, they began reaching out to victims of the most damaging hurricane in U.S. history.
One year later, the Rapid Response Team chaplains have ministered to more than 38,000 people in Gulf Coast communities where life, both physically and emotionally, resembles nothing of life pre-Katrina.
At four ministry hubs, in Biloxi and Kiln, Miss., and in Louisiana’s Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes, BGEA chaplains and Samaritan’s Purse workers sleep, eat and pray together each day–as they have for the past year–before entering the broken neighborhoods surrounding them. Samaritan’s Purse workers have helped gut and clean more than 8,000 homes for residents who are also visited by chaplains, ready with bottles of cold water, to listen as Katrina stories and related heartaches tumble out. To those who have watched their flood-ruined possessions being dragged to the curb and their homes being gutted, chaplains offer words of comfort and prayer. More than 2,000 such interactions have ended in commitments to Christ.
Preparing the Way
“Jesus did not come to end suffering, but to reveal Himself in the midst of it,” keynote speaker Jonathan Olford told 400 people at the June 19-22 “His Presence in Crisis” evangelism conference at the Billy Graham Training Center near Asheville, N.C. Olford, who trains Rapid Response Team chaplains for deployment, says that much like John the Baptist, Christians prepare the way for Jesus in their response to the cry of the suffering–which may be mostly just listening to them.
Ministering to First Responders
Rapid Response Team chaplains Al and Toni New, who spoke at the conference, had deployed to the Gulf Coast in early October, shortly after authorities opened the New Orleans area to the public. When the News began ministering to the St. Bernard Parish Fire Department (SBFD) they learned the truth of Olford’s words firsthand.
Their first day at the temporary fire station, a firefighter sat down with Al and Toni. He would say a few words, then quietly get up and walk away. He would come back, sit down again, say a bit more, and walk away. After he did this several times, the News realized that the firefighter was struggling to keep his composure in front of his men … but he also needed to release his tears.
During the early days after Katrina, firefighters and police officers were rescuing stranded residents from attics and rooftops with no initial outside governmental help, no cell phone reception, no change of clothes and no respite from the sights and smells of the infamous floodwaters. Beyond that, many didn’t know where their own families were. For those carrying the double burden of rescuing victims and being victims themselves, chaplains like Al and Toni–Al himself a firefighter–were a gift.
Steve Gallodoro, a fire inspector at the SBFD, said that although many psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors were sent especially to help first responders, they were short term. “You would meet with them one time and you might get another meeting with them,” said Gallodoro, whose father perished when his nursing home south of New Orleans flooded. Gallodoro added that most firefighters were told that they would be “turned over” to someone else. “When Al and Toni came, they stayed for a while, left for a very short time, and we’d see them again,” Gallodoro said. “And they didn’t want to just hear a story, they wanted to assist and make things better.”
Since last October, the News have returned monthly and have knit into their lives many of the 100-some St. Bernard Parish firefighters. Some have even visited Al and Toni at their Kingsport, Tenn., home. “When we first met [the firefighters], we fell in love with them,” Toni recounted during an emotional visit to the SBFD this summer. “We started trying to make their lives easier, serving them and loving them”–exactly what Al and Toni New plan to continue to do as long as the Rapid Response Team has a presence in the Gulf.
One Year Later …
As the anniversary of Katrina comes and goes, Gulf Coast residents don’t want to be forgotten as they continue to heal emotionally and rebuild their lives. On the following pages are images of some who have been listened to, prayed with and loved–and who have gained a measure of hope from chaplains who have visited them in the name of Christ.
“The fire department is not an organization that lets a lot of people in. We’re kind of like a family,” concedes Fire Captain Craig Peyton. But Peyton says that chaplains like Al and Toni New have helped firefighters “keep their faith up” and have earned the department’s acceptance and respect. Peyton admits that it’s hard not to have depression set in when his whole community has been destroyed, but he is a Christian and has found that words of Scripture have kept him going and have sustained his faith. He quotes from Job 38, “God answered Job from the whirlwind: … ‘Where were you at when I framed the world?'” Peyton understands that God’s perspective is different from ours. “You can’t figure Him out,” he says. “Observing God, believing that He’s good and that I don’t understand the rest–basically that’s how I keep going.”
Deputy Chief AJ Seruntine, a third-generation firefighter, lost the St. Bernard Parish home that he had lived in for 39 years. When Seruntine, along with chaplains Al and Toni New, went back to his home, now gutted and sprayed for mold by Samaritan’s Purse, he recounted to them the experience of coming to see the house with his parents, who had lived with him. The firefighter grew emotional. “Once in a while it gets to me,” he said. The firefighter described what he saw last August: “You thought Armageddon was here–when you see water coming at you that just keeps rising and rising. I said, ‘God, please stop the water’ … I asked Him several times, and He stopped it at the second floor.” Seruntine added with a half laugh, “It was more than I wanted, but evidently it was His mark.” Before leaving Seruntine’s home, Al prayed for his firefighter friend: “Father, we pray that You be with AJ, strengthen his faith and show him that there is hope, that even though things look real grim and dreary right now, there is a purpose in this and that whatever that is, Father, You are going to receive glory for everything that’s taken place.”
Ronnie Wester, left, a Rapid Response Team chaplain based in Kiln, Miss., stands with Betty Gillan, of nearby Waveland, on her front lawn. Gillan’s home was recently gutted, re-floored and dry-walled by Samaritan’s Purse. Her voice falters as she recalls how her ruined belongings were taken to the ditch in front of her home. Wester reminds her fragile friend that she has Jesus in her life now. “He has helped me a lot,” Gillan acknowledges. Wester again encourages her, “You’re never alone with Him … You’re never alone.” Since receiving help from Samaritan’s Purse and the BGEA Rapid Response Team, Gillan has been dining with the workers and chaplains weekly and attending church services at their Kiln volunteer site, Bayou Tallu Fellowship.
The Herron Family
Al New, left, reads a Scripture with John Broussard, foster child of Gordon and June Herron, of Kiln, Miss. Gordon attended Franklin Graham’s Celebration of Hope in New Orleans in March, and Christ transformed his heart. He says that life hasn’t been the same and that a love for God’s Word has come over him. “When I opened that Book, everything fell into place,” he says. Gordon admits that he is not educated, but he has been teaching himself how to read the Bible, which he now reads out loud to his household, including his wife and their adopted and foster children, as they prepare for their day. Still in a single-wide trailer after their home was destroyed in Katrina, Gordon says he has good days and bad days: “[God] ain’t given me nothing I can’t handle. Life’s not a bed of roses. But His life wasn’t a bed a roses. Look at what He did for us. That’s the way I look at it.”
Rhonda Couture needed someone to talk to her 7-year-old daughter, Taylar. Unexpected deaths in the family–as well as Katrina’s destruction of their home and life–had undone the young girl. “She was having a lot of problems and she couldn’t talk to me,” Rhonda said. “One evening I went to take a shower and Taylar said, ‘I’m outta here.’ She packed her backpack and out the door she went. I had to jump out of the shower and grab her. She told me, ‘Nobody should have to live in total destruction, and I’m not going to do it.’ Nightly we would go through [a similar] ritual.” Rhonda tried to connect her daughter with a school counselor, but after meeting chaplain Toni New, Taylar only wanted to talk to her. Below, New frolics with Taylar before she prays: “God, thank You for Taylar and that You have allowed us to be a part of her life. I know You are going to get her through this. Help her, heal her, give her a future and a hope …”
Residents in lower Plaquemines Parish, some 60 miles south of New Orleans, live at the end of Highway 23, the end of Louisiana, the end of the Mississippi River. And when Katrina’s gales first made landfall, it felt like the end of the world. Like thousands of others in the parish, Max Latham, pastor of Miracle Assembly of God, in Buras, was left with a cement slab where his family’s home had been. The crosses on his property, which remained standing after Katrina, have been a community landmark since 1983. And since 2000, every June 1–the official beginning of hurricane season–people have come from miles around to meet below the crosses to pray for God’s protection. Latham recalls a reporter who came to the 2005 service. “What are you going to do if a hurricane hits?” the reporter asked. “We’ll know one thing,” Latham told him, “it won’t be because we haven’t prayed.” Nearly a year after Katrina, Latham says he would go through it all again. Hundreds of volunteers from 17 states, who were invited to use Latham’s expansive property as a base camp, have upheld the pastor and other Plaquemines Parish families and churches with their labor, gifts, prayers and tears. “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross,” Latham recites from Hebrews 12:2 (KJV). “I lost a few things. … In the beginning we wouldn’t think we would go through it again, but if we could see from the Lord’s perspective …” Latham’s voice trails off. “What I have lost–it’s so minor compared to what we gained.”