As tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees poured out of New Orleans, the people of faith of Baton Rouge opened their arms and doors to welcome them.
“It was quite amazing,” Mayor-President Kip Holden said. “The church answered the call. … A lot of churches took in a lot of folks. They fed people. They gave them water, clothes, just about anything they needed. The churches were right there wherever they were needed.
“The thing that comes to my mind is, ‘Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?’ ” said Holden, quoting the Bible verse Jeremiah 8:22. That Scripture is the basis for a spiritual Holden then quoted, “Yes, ‘there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.’ ”
The mayor said the churches “saw people in need and then went to see how they could ease the suffering and pain they went through.”
Healing Place offers help at airport, on interstate
Healing Place Church, located on Highland Road just off Interstate 10, was, geographically, one of the first Baton Rouge churches the evacuees found.
“People were stranded on the Interstate, so we walked out there and passed out bottles of water,” said the Rev. Mike Haman, Healing Place’s senior pastor. “It was so hot. They didn’t have any food or drink.”
The church opened the Highland Road campus and the Donaldsonville Dream Center campus as shelters and fed thousands at its Spanish church in Gonzales for several months.
Haman and dozens of pastors on the Pastors Resource Council also served at the evacuation hub at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans InternationalAirport.
“To this day, when I go to the New Orleans airport I think of the countless hours we spent there helping people get out of the city,” Haman said.
Bethany shelters evacuees, responders on two campuses
“Take the church out of the equation and it would have been much worse than it was,” said the Rev. Jonathan Stockstill, senior pastor of Bethany Church. “I think the church really stepped up.”
At the Baker campus, the church had 1,200 evacuees, many who stayed three months.
“Our volunteers fed them, did their laundry, provided security, did whatever was needed to serve them,” Stockstill said. “The second night, we had a (worship) service and 900 made decisions for Christ. That totally changed the environment because everyone had been born again.”
Hundreds of responders were housed at the South Campus at Siegen Lane and I-10, where its three giant crosses can be seen for miles.
“The church being a lighthouse was the biggest win for me,” Stockstill said. “The worst part was the brokenness, so much upheaval and in so many people’s lives.”
Stockstill, then-worship leader under his father Larry, wrote a Katrina anthem. “Let the Church Rise” is a music video featuring Katrina news footage and can be viewed on YouTube.
Catholics feed thousands, provides counseling
The Diocese of Baton Rouge, its Catholic Charities, then known as Catholic Community Services, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society also served many thousands of evacuees.
Carol Spruell, communications director for Catholic Charities, reported they served over 100,000 people with gas cards, bus tickets, food and housing vouchers, and counseling.
“We learned that if we helped families to develop a recovery plan in the early days, they could recover faster,” Spruell said.
St. Vincent de Paul Society served more than 70,000 people, including 43,000 hot meals just in the month of September, executive director Michael Acaldo told the Catholic Commentator.
“What I remember most about Katrina was the wonderful way our church responded,” he said.
Bishop Robert W. Muench wrote in a statement, “Never before in my life had I witnessed people who joined hands and arms, minds and hearts, spirits and voices to make manifest the defining service taught by Jesus: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food; thirsty and you gave me drink; a stranger and you welcomed me; naked and you clothed me; ill and you cared for me; in prison and you visited me. … For whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers, you did for me” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40). Praised be God!”
Southern Baptists open churches, homes
Of the 85 churches and missions of the (Southern) Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge, nine became shelters and more than 50 collected and distributed food, clothing, water and other necessities.
“The church stepped up — everybody — 24-7, from washing clothes to cooking meals to taking care of animals,” said the Rev. Dr. Tommy Middleton, BAGBR’s executive director and then-pastor of Woodlawn Baptist Church.
BAGBR served as an organizational hub for emergency responders, such as Red Cross, military and law enforcement, and found housing for them in dozens of Baptists’ homes.
“There were about 30 refugees who were saved while they were with us (at Woodlawn),” Middleton said. “Those were some of the greatest days of ministry we ever did.”
Istrouma Baptist, located at the intersection of Airline Highway and Interstate 12, sheltered more than 500 evacuees for several months.
The Rev. Ron Lambe, now-retired as Istrouma’s administrative pastor, cast Katrina in Charles Dickens terms: “It was the best of times and the worst of times.”
“It was the worst of times due to how grossly ill-prepared our entire state government, the Red Cross, our church and even our nation was for a natural disaster of this proportion and the grueling 16-hour days our staff and volunteers put in each day,” Lambe recalled. “It was the best of times because it allowed our church members to learn quickly to love those who are less fortunate than us and to demonstrate true sacrificial love to those displaced by the floods.”
Istrouma served as a major collection center, where dozens of semitrailers filled with food, clothing and essentials such as toilet paper and personal hygiene items were unloaded, the goods then sorted by church volunteers and distributed.
Katrina also created a bridge between the mostly white Istrouma congregation and the African-American congregation of the Rev. Fred Luter’s Franklin Avenue Baptist Church of New Orleans.
For more than a year, Luter, or one of his pastors, and about 200 members worshipped each Sunday afternoon in Istrouma’s sanctuary. Many of them stayed in Baton Rouge and now share the sanctuary of Florida Boulevard Baptist church with its mostly white congregation.
Missionary Baptists serve inner-city evacuees
The Rev. Leo D. Cyrus Sr., pastor of New Hope Baptist and Second Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, was moderator of the Fourth District Baptist Association, a group of 183 churches in the six-parish area, when Katrina struck.
“When people started migrating here from New Orleans, we were ill-prepared,” Cyrus said. “Shipments were coming to Baton Rouge from all over the world but not into the inner-city churches.”
The mayor ordered a distribution center be located at the Fourth District’s headquarters on Prescott Road, Cyrus said, and then a steady stream of semitrailers delivering food and supplies began arriving.
“Our people opened their hearts, they opened their doors, they served to feed them,” Cyrus said. “Many of them have become like family to many of us because of the relationships that were formed during that time.”
Ten years ago, the Rev. Fred Jeff Smith, now senior pastor of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, was pastor of Greater Mount Carmel Baptist Church of Scotlandville, and his father, the late Rev. Charles T. Smith, was Shiloh’s pastor.
“I think that it is fair to say that, in light of the tragedy that befell the people of New Orleans, there was a general desire on the part of all churches in the Baton Rouge area to serve the immediate needs of the evacuees,” Smith said in an email.
“However, from a practical standpoint, the ability of many African-American churches to respond was limited by inadequate facilities and insufficient revenues. Despite this reality, many African-American congregations took what they had and did what they could to accommodate the men, women and children who were devastated by the storm.”
“Shiloh housed more than 75 individuals and raised $200,000 in donations, much of it coming from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation,” Smith wrote. “We thank God for what he blessed Shiloh to be able to do to help people in his name!”
Living Faith helps people apply for assistance
Bishop Raymond W. Johnson, founder of Living Faith Christian Center on Winbourne Avenue, said they had just moved into their new building, so they turned the older one into a shelter, kitchen and computer center.
“We had a bank of computers so people could get on them to apply for assistance, which was a real big drama for a lot of folks,” Johnson said. “We had volunteers help them with that.”
Many of the people “didn’t even have the basic necessities of life,” he said, so the church gave many of them $100 Wal-Mart gift cards.
“I can’t tell you the number of churches where we donated to the (displaced) pastors because they didn’t have an income and their bills went on and on,” Johnson said.
United Methodists tapped evacuee to lead response
The Katrina evacuation is personal to the Rev. Darryl Tate, pastor of St. Andrews United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, who, when Katrina hit, was pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church on Canal Boulevard in New Orleans.
“We lost our home, our daughter lost her home, we lost our church, our congregation lost their homes.” Tate said.
Five days later, a Lafayette church sheltered them in a Sunday school building.
“It was like a message from God that he was going to take care of us,” Tate said. “We just had to have faith to know that it was all going to be OK.”
A few days later, he was named CEO of Louisiana Disaster Response for United Methodist Council on Relief, where he served for eight years.
In that time, UMCOR served 125,000 households after hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike and Gustav.
“The federal government couldn’t respond because their hands were tied in a lot of ways, but ‘the church’ could respond because we were helping the least, the last, the lost, people who were falling through the cracks,” Tate said. “The church could respond quicker because we didn’t have so much red tape and so much bureaucracy to go through.”
Jewish congregations assist at federal trailer villages
Both Jewish congregations of Baton Rouge, B’nai Israel and Beth Shalom, fed, clothed and housed evacuees and assisted them after the federal government established trailer villages around the area.
“We were very concerned to do everything possible for these people who literally had nothing,” said Rabbi Barry Weinstein, now rabbi emeritus for the Congregation B’nai Israel.
Weinstein quoted from the book of Job, 40:6-7: “Out of the whirlwind, the Lord replied to Job, ‘Gird your loins like a man. …’ ”
“We heard the voice of God in Katrina,” Weinstein said, “and the voice of God was to reach out to those less fortunate and help them.”
Lessons: Unity in effort lead to quick response times
“One of the key elements in helping to bring relief during Katrina was that we were on the front lines of helping to serve people because we were able to collaborate quickly,” Healing Place’s Haman said. “That particular experience bonded all of us together. When you battle together, when you bleed together, you bond together.”
“When crisis hits, it’s amazing to see the body of Christ galvanize like that,” Bethany’s Stockstill added. “We’re one army.”
“The incredible resiliency of people — both our members and those who came to us needing shelter and substance,” Istrouma’s Lambe said.
“That was a time when not just the big churches but the small congregations were able to reach out and make an impact,” Living Faith’s Johnson said.
“The Bible says, Romans 8:28, ‘For we know that all things work together for the good of all them that know the Lord and are called according to his purpose,’ ” New Hope and Second Baptist’s Cyrus said. “Whatever bad happens, something good comes out of it, and that was the good that came out of Katrina.”
“We rolled up our sleeves as brothers and sisters in Christ to do the work of ‘The Church of Jesus Christ’ without worrying about denominational credits,” said Tate, the Methodist. “That is exactly the way the body of Christ is supposed to work.”