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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Five Years After Katrina

By Christina Quick
Aug. 29, 2010

On Aug. 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina steamrolled across the Gulf of Mexico with fierce winds and a storm surge that inundated communities along the Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi coastlines. In New Orleans, the tempest breeched protective levees and poured into the city, cutting off roads, burying homes and creating an urban nightmare.

In a matter of hours, Jon Smith lost his New Orleans home and all his possessions. The rising water also flooded House of Prayer Assembly of God, the church on Canal Street where Smith serves as pastor.

“We lost our entire congregation,” Smith says. “They scattered across six states.”

Yet, sensing God’s call, Smith soon returned to the devastated city. For nearly two years, he and his wife lived in a 300-square-foot travel trailer as they repaired the church, ministered to the needs of the community and worked to grow a new congregation.

“It was really a matter of trusting God,” Smith says. “We had nothing to come back to.”

Though thousands of residents and businesses permanently left the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina, most Assemblies of God pastors remained. Overwhelmingly, they say God called them to stay put.

When James Jeffries returned to Reggio Assembly of God in St. Bernard Parish six weeks after the disaster, he found the cinder-block building demolished and the roof floating in the bayou. At nearby St. Rita’s nursing home, where the church held a monthly worship service prior to the flood, 35 residents had drowned. They were among more than 1,800 people whose lives Katrina claimed.

“We knew every one of the nursing home residents who drowned,” Jeffries says. “They were just as much our people as the ones sitting in the pews.”

Jeffries held church in his mother-in-law’s living room until his own home was partially repaired. The congregation then moved to his living room, where Jeffries officiated baby dedications and even a wedding.

Finally, in December 2009, the congregation dedicated a permanent facility — a former post office renovated after the flood. The church is now known as House of Refuge.

“That’s what we want to be: a refuge to hurting people,” Jeffries says. “It’s not about what we can do. It’s about what God can do.”

All along the Gulf Coast, churches have offered refuge to people struggling to rebuild their lives. Thousands of congregations and individuals across the country participated in relief and rebuilding efforts after Katrina and following Hurricane Rita, a second storm that pounded Texas and Louisiana in September 2005.

Convoy of Hope arrived in the Gulf as soon as the main roads were cleared following Katrina.

“The wind hadn’t even stopped blowing when we pulled in,” says Kary Kingsland, Convoy’s vice president of disaster response.

The compassion ministry, partnering with the Assemblies of God, maintained a presence in the region after many other agencies pulled out. Between 2005 and 2008, Convoy distributed more than $17.5 million in food and supplies in stricken areas.

Convoy workers and volunteers also helped repair or rebuild 80 churches, two Teen Challenge centers and more than 3,000 homes. Three Convoy of Hope outreaches are scheduled in the Gulf Coast area this year.

By partnering with congregations, Convoy of Hope has sought to mobilize ministry at the local level, according to Kingsland.

“The Church is always there,” Kingsland says. “The power can go out, communications can go down, but that doesn’t take out the Church. If the roof is gone — or even if the building is destroyed — the Church exists, and it still has the capacity to care.”

Volunteers with the AG’s U.S. Mission America Placement Service also helped with rebuilding efforts, moving RVs into affected areas for months at a time to assist churches and individuals in need.

“I don’t think some of these churches would have survived without the assistance of RV Volunteers,” says Jerry Bell, U.S. MAPS director. “Thousands of lives were touched by the generosity of this wonderful group of people.”

George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, says he was impressed by the Fellowship’s response to Katrina.

“Assemblies of God people and churches once again demonstrated their compassion, love and generosity during the Katrina disaster,” Wood says. “I never cease to be amazed at the outpouring of help from our pastors and people the minute Katrina struck — and that response is repeated again and again when other disasters strike.”

Journey Fellowship Church, located on the north shore of New Orleans near Slidell, La., was devastated when a 20-foot storm surge crashed over the building. Most of the 1,300 attendees evacuated the area. But the Sunday following the hurricane, 75 people showed up for an open-air worship service in the parking lot.

Journey Fellowship partnered with Convoy of Hope to distribute water and supplies to about 2,000 people a day for a month. Church staff members and volunteers then fanned out to clean and repair homes and minister to members of the community.

“Serving in the middle of the storm was irreplaceable,” says Doug McAllister, senior pastor. “I wouldn’t want to repeat it, but I also wouldn’t want to trade it in because it’s been valuable. Relationships were built, and people were won to Christ along the way.”

The church rebuilt on a 100-acre campus north of the city. Though many of the former members moved from the area, the congregation now numbers about 1,500.

In 2008, Journey Fellowship planted a new church, Journey Ninth Ward Assembly in inner-city New Orleans. Robert Burnside, the church’s pastor, moved from California to New Orleans one month before Hurricane Katrina because he sensed God calling him to plant a church. Burnside’s wife, Sherdren, gave birth just hours before the family had to evacuate. Burnside’s mother, who lived in a nursing home in New Orleans, died in the storm because no ambulance was available to transport her.

“People in this area have been through a lot,” Burnside says. “There’s a lot of disparity, but people are more receptive to the gospel because of Katrina. There are people in this neighborhood who didn’t get anything from the government. It was the Church that helped them.”

Doug Fulenwider, superintendent of the AG Louisiana District, says there are now more Assemblies of God churches in New Orleans than before Katrina.

“The interest and the desire to do more for New Orleans is very real,” Fulenwider says. “The need for people to have hope in Christ has been a strong part of that.”

Anthony Freeman, former president of the School of Urban Missions in New Orleans, says one week before Katrina made landfall he sensed God calling him to turn in his resignation and plant a church. He now serves as pastor of All Nations Fellowship, a growing congregation on an uptown New Orleans street that once flowed with 12 feet of floodwater.

“There’s so much opportunity in New Orleans,” Freeman says. “It’s always been a mission field, but it especially is now. There are so many needs, so many hurting people.”

Rustin Treadaway leads a new Assemblies of God congregation in St. Bernard Parish. His formerly independent church joined the Fellowship after experiencing the outpouring of support from AG people following the storm.

“We met so many awesome people from the Assemblies of God churches, we wanted to be part of that family,” Treadaway says. “About 95 percent of the people in our congregation have been helped by Convoy of Hope.”

Daniel Brown, pastor of Anchor Assembly of God in Bayou La Batre, Ala., says residents in the fishing community still talk about assistance received from Convoy of Hope.

“It’s things like that that earn us the right to be heard when we talk to them because they know we care,” Brown says.

Brown planted the church five months before Katrina hit, and Anchor AG had 25 followers when floodwaters overran it.

“I felt like somebody had hit me in the gut with a baseball bat,” Brown says. “It was worse than starting over.”

Yet Brown quickly started meeting needs in the community. Along the way, he built relationships and gained the respect of those he served. Today, Anchor Assembly has a new building and 70 attendees. The church operates a food pantry called Katrina’s Cabinet.

With the local fishing economy reeling from the massive oil spill in the Gulf, the church is finding new ministry opportunities.

“We’ve learned that a disaster is nothing more than an opportunity to reach people for Christ,” Brown says. “We’re trusting God that people are going to get saved, delivered and healed out of this, and what was meant to destroy is going to bring people into the Kingdom.”

Max Latham, pastor of Miracle Assembly of God in Buras, La., says the oil spill may further reduce his congregation of 15. The church had about 70 attendees before Katrina, but most people have abandoned the small town. Few stores have been rebuilt, and homeowner’s insurance is pricey. Still, Latham senses God has a purpose for Miracle Assembly.

“I feel like I’m supposed to be here,” says Latham, who has taken on a second job as a maintenance worker for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Whoever is here, we’re going to pastor until the Lord speaks to us to move on.”

Five years after Katrina, the Gulf Coast is far from recovered. For many communities, life will never again be the same. But the persevering spirit of the Church in the wake of disaster is reminiscent of the apostle Paul, who proclaimed: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8,9, NIV).

CHRISTINA QUICK is a freelance writer and former Pentecostal Evangel staff writer. She lives in Springfield, Mo., and attends Central Assembly of God.

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