On that night, one of our members was at the church when a couple came to the door of the gym and knocked seeking shelter for their family from traveling. They were from New Orleans, and Hurricane Katrina was making a beeline for that part of the Louisiana coast. The church member called me at home and said that she was going to allow the couple to spend the night in the gym. I went up and met with the couple and told them that we would be happy for them to rest in our facility, but that we weren't equipped as a shelter. You see, there were several Red Cross shelters in our area and LOTS more north of Vidalia in places like Monroe and Shreveport. We were able to secure a couple of air mattresses for the family and some bed linens. We were happy to do our part to make this evacuee family comfortable for the night. But the job was not over...
While we were getting that family situated, another car pulled into the parking lot. Another family got out and wanted a place to stay. I didn't know if we could find another bed, but they were insistent. I remember what they said (in a pretty strong cajun accent)... "We're so tired, we don't need a bed. If you'll just let us lay on the floor and sleep, we'll be SO appreciative." We couldn't do that, so we called around and found another couple of air mattresses for the couple to sleep. They WERE appreciative! Another couple...another car...another family... Before morning, we were housing over 110 people in our gym. To this day, I don't know where they all came from. I don't know how they found our church. All I know is that it was our privilege to serve these hurting people.
Before long, there were about 25 church members at the gym bringing mattresses (like real ones...not the blow-up kind), extra clothes, food, drinks, supplies.... Basically anything that could be needed. I was amazed as I saw FBCV come together in a way that it never had before to help these people. The next morning, as people began to awake, we realized that they needed something to eat. I think that morning, somebody went and got LOTS of donuts to feed people. That would be the worst meal our "friends" would eat in the time they were with us. By lunchtime, we had a FULL-ON SOUTHERN BAPTIST POTLUCK going on! It was amazing! By the looks on their faces, I think some of those people had NEVER seen food like that. (If there's one thing a Baptist church can do...it's throw an "eatin' meetin'.")
For three weeks, it was our privilege to serve those wonderful people. They thought we were doing them a favor, but it was us who received the blessing. They thought we were serving them, but in many ways, they were serving us.
Some stories from that time...
One couple was made up of an un-believing husband, daughter, and son-in-law--and a believing wife and son. The wife told us later that all the way out of St. Bernard Parish, the husband kept asking his wife, "Where's your God now? Why won't some of these churches open their doors and help us? Where's all of those people that you say are so good?" She said that she had come to a point of thinking some of the same questions and looked up to ask God and that's when she saw our church! We saw that son-in-law and daughter make decisions to follow Christ in the time they were here. We also saw the hard exterior of that husband start to crack as we just continued to serve that family (don't know if he ever made a decision for Jesus, but I know he was closer when he left than when he came). They stayed with us for quite some time. We threw a baby shower for the daughter. We ended up putting them in a house right down the road from the street where they stayed until they could return to their home.
One lady was there with her daughter. You could tell by one look at the lady that she had a rough life. A conversation would only confirm that suspicion. She had dabbled in wicca, voodoo, occult, and just about anything else you could imagine. She also had a rough background with drugs and alcohol. She dressed very inappropriately. Her daughter was really messed up. It was a tough situation. I remember something she said after she started attending church services AND Sunday School. She said, "I've never had a group of people treat me like you all have treated me." You see, some of our ladies adopted this young lady. They took her shopping for some appropriate clothes. They tried to help her get a job. Most of all they just prayed for her. I saw her the other day in Wal-Mart. I would love to tell you that she's still in church. I can't say that (she may be, but not in our church,) but what I can say is that the evil that lurked in her eyes is gone! It's been replaced by love because she felt the power of that love in her life.
I remember our first Wednesday night after our shelter opened. We announced to everyone that we were going to have a service and they were welcome to come. We didn't force anyone to come, but we certainly welcomed them. I was kind of disappointed when we started the service and only one of our evacuees was in the Sanctuary. However, about ten minutes later, the doors opened and another couple filed in and sat on the back row. Several minutes later, the doors opened again and an entire family sat on the back row. Before the end of the service, about 15 of our evacuees had joined us for worship and prayer. Compare that to the last Sunday that we had our shelter. Not only were almost ALL of our evacuees in our church, but they weren't sitting on the back row anymore. No, they were sitting among our church members....the ones that they had learned to call their "family."
It was a sad day when we had to close our shelter. We announced on week two that we would be closing on week three. Several of the local Red Cross shelters had emptied out, so there was room for the people in our shelter. Even our evacuees had dwindled by some of them going home and some of them seeking a more permanent solution. I remember telling them that we would not allow them to go unless they had a place to go to. That meant that we had to work with them individually to find either another shelter or (for many of them) a home. One by one, we would pray for each evacuee and then send them off to what would be their more permanent dwelling.
Some would think that the FBCV shelter was for the evacuees. I would disagree. I think our shelter was for us. I think God allowed us to host those wonderful people in our church to show us how to love again...to show us how to reach out again...to show us how much HE loved US!
You see, we were serving those people because they had no one else to serve them. In the same way, Jesus came to serve us because He knew that there was no other way for us to get to Him. He provided us shelter from the storms of this life. (Not that we don't get rained on...but we always have a refuge.) He provided us sustenance for our souls. He provided us rest for our weary backs. He provided for us what we couldn't provide for ourselves. And when there are those times that the world begins to ask us difficult questions about our God and we begin to ask those questions ourselves...let us look up to heaven and see the answer...it's the Cross! That's the answer! The simple fact that Jesus came to live on this earth to redeem us from ourselves and our sin...that's the answer. And THAT is worth remembering...