As Katrina roared toward New Orleans, Charles and Angela Marsalis sought refuge at their church
NEW ORLEANS — "Girl, you better get out of town!” …
MANDEVILLE, La. — Before the trees snapped and the floodwaters rose, the Tammany Oaks Church of Christ envisioned a festive grand opening at its new, $1.3 million worship center.
The 225-member congregation mailed fliers inviting 5,000 neighbors to the special service in this fast-growing suburb just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans.
However, no visitors — and only about 14 members — showed up.
“Kickoff Sunday” came just 24 hours before Hurricane Katrina waged war on the Gulf Coast, and most heeded warnings to flee.
But in the aftermath of a disaster that killed hundreds and left thousands homeless, the congregation found itself with a different, extraordinary way to reach out.
“God has shown himself … to be able to take an awful, tragic situation and just use it for the good of the kingdom,” minister Tod Vogt said.
As church members nationwide donated millions of dollars, filled tractor-trailer rigs with thousands of boxes of food and transformed fellowship halls into temporary homes for hundreds of evacuees, the Tammany Oaks congregation became a central point for church relief efforts.
Unlike most New Orleans area churches, it escaped the storm mostly unscathed, making it a perfect place to receive truckloads of donations and distribute food, water, medicine, soap, shampoo, mops, buckets and other cleaning supplies, church leaders said.
“We cannot understand why God chose us at this time to finish the building three weeks before the disaster and then blessed us with power and provisions, except it is God’s will,” said church member Douglas Hines, whose congregation previously met in rented restaurant and hotel space.
HEART OF GENEROSITY
The Tammany Oaks church provides just one snapshot of the huge outpouring of Christian compassion after Katrina.
At Greater Atlanta Christian School in Georgia, elementary-age children donated their ice cream money to help victims. Their donations totaled $125 for 40 displaced families staying at a hotel.
“Small students dropped their raisins, apples and change into my hands,” elementary Principal Norma Miller said.
In Oklahoma City, the Quail Springs Church of Christ launched “Operation Underwear” to collect new, packaged undergarments for victims. In Wichita Falls, Texas, the Tenth and Broad Church of Christ bought couches, tables, chairs and beds to furnish dozens of apartments for evacuees. In South Dakota, church member Ralph Bos and his family offered to open their home to orphaned children.
In countless churches, members donned aprons to cook meals for victims and set up cots in fellowship halls and gymnasiums. At the Riverside Church of Christ in Lafayette, La., about 135 miles west of New Orleans, members fed 400 people three meals a day for weeks. Some members welcomed a dozen or more evacuees into their homes.
On a national level, church members donated roughly $4.7 million in the first few weeks to Nashville, Tenn.-based Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Efffort, and executive director Joe L. Dudney said much more was needed.
By mid-September, Dudney’s ministry had sent 15 tractor-trailers full of family food boxes and four truckloads of new beds to 14 distribution centers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
WFR Relief Ministries of the White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ in West Monroe, La., collected $1.4 million by that time. That included a record $339,000 received on Sept. 12, the day after many congregations had special offerings, said Don Yelton, who directs the 25-year-old ministry.
From Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and beyond, church members armed with chainsaws and work gloves descended on hard-hit areas in Mississippi and Louisiana, offering free labor and encouragement.
John Dobbs, minister of the Central Church of Christ in Pascagoula, Miss., praised the outpouring of sweat and support.
“I just hope that Christians will realize the massive nature of this destruction,” said Dobbs, who has spent recent weeks gutting his flooded home. “From where I stand, there are people down the street from me living in tents in their front yard. This is going to be a long, long process.”
Dobbs’ devastated congregation didn’t even pass the collection plate on a recent Sunday. “Nobody has anything to put in it,” he said, adding that a few dedicated givers dropped money in a basket that the church set out.
HELPERS AND VICTIMS
Back at Tammany Oaks, the phone keeps ringing as volunteers from hundreds of miles away offer their help.
Donations keep arriving, from church members and sources as diverse as Desperate Housewives star Teri Hatcher, who gave $20,000 to buy generators, and Tyson Foods, which provided 40,000 pounds of breaded chicken patties.
By mid-September, the congregation had supplied food to an estimated 5,000 people, and about 200 people were sleeping at the church, Vogt said.
In addition, the church sent daily work crews to help victims cut trees, remove debris and clean out homes. It also organized a medical response team.
“Our volunteers come with such wonderfully gracious and giving attitudes,” Vogt said. “Of course, many are seeing devastation that they have never seen before and hearing stories that are difficult to process. We are having morning and evening devotionals to help vent the stress they are absorbing as they serve.”
Even as the Tammany Oaks church cared for others, many of its members remained scattered throughout the nation – victims themselves and unsure if they will have jobs when they return home.
“The only thing that would make me move is if I can’t work anymore here, and that may happen,” said church elder Ambrose Ramsey, a lawyer who, like most of the congregation, worked in New Orleans. “It’s going to happen to some people – many people – for sure.”
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