Nga Phan, a Vietnamese-born woman and non-practicing Buddhist, worked in a casino as a card dealer until Hurricane Katrina hit on August 29. She now marvels at how quickly Southern Baptists set up a field kitchen the day after the storm, cooking lunch for 5,000 in Biloxi, Mississippi. "They are doing a lot to help people," she told Christianity Today. "They are the only ones doing that in our neighborhood."

The Baptists of Mississippi have often opposed honky-tonk evils like gambling. But Phan decided to overlook that in joining the volunteer corps at First Baptist Church in Biloxi.

This story is not unusual. Throughout the Gulf Coast region, thousands of Christians showed up unannounced with food, Porta Potties, diapers, and prayer. Historians may judge this mobilization as the largest in the nation's history.

Opportunity Orientation

Americans associate the Red Cross and the Salvation Army with home-front disaster relief on a grand scale. After Katrina, much of the $1 billion in private giving for relief efforts went to those two high-profile organizations.

The Southern Baptist North American Mission Board (namb) has been less known for disaster relief. No longer. The extent of Southern Baptist relief preparation was clearly evident after Katrina hit in late August and the less potent Hurricane Rita in late September.

From Mobile, Alabama, to Houston, Texas, the story was often the same. The leaders of a damaged church couldn't call or email anyone and were praying about what to do. More often than not, the brakes of a big truck pulling into the parking lot punctuated the end of their prayers.

That's exactly what happened in Hammond, Louisiana. Pastor Leon Dunn and his leaders regrouped to pray and a truck from Texas was waiting for them in the parking lot. "I couldn't believe it," he told CT. "It was such a joyous sight. I thought people had forgotten us. I just broke down."

Southern Baptists now field the third-largest privately funded relief corps in the United States. By Thursday, September 1, in Mobile, Alabama, the Baptists were prepared to serve 20,000 meals a day for ten days. By the end of September, they had prepared more than 5.1 million meals at 56 sites, a million meals more than they had prepared after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

The chart-busting disaster response by Southern Baptists began in 1966 with a "buddy burner" stove and one man's vision to help the helpless after catastrophes. In 1966, the Southern Baptist Convention appropriated $25,000 for relief preparations. Then, after the category 5 Hurricane Beulah hit the Gulf Coast in 1967, Bob Dixon demonstrated the utility of a camping-style "buddy burner." It's a single-flame stove that cooks one-pot meals. Southern Baptists warmed to the idea of becoming food specialists in relief efforts. In 1971, they rolled out their first fully outfitted tractor-trailer rig with a field kitchen, ham radio, bunks, and an electric generator.

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By 2005, they were able to field 500 cooking units with 30,000 volunteers. The Southern Baptist relief effort is mainly the inspiration of Dixon. The Texan combined a love for camping, baseball, and government disaster and mobilization jobs into a philosophy of ministry.

Instead of programs driving the church, Dixon said that the church should be "opportunity-oriented." For Dixon, the gospel is itself event-oriented in that Christ is a disruptive event in people's settled lives. Christians, whose lives have been turned upside down by faith, should have the best background for handling a catastrophe.

Dixon's overall vision is event-driven, but his modus operandi is detailed organization, like what he found in the Navy. The Baptists have almost everything color-coded and computer-counted ("35,422 showers provided!"). White hats direct the blue hats who direct the yellow hats and everyone else.

Their efforts are specialized, focusing on food preparation and certain types of cleanup. One crew drives up with a tractor-trailer that breaks down into cooking stoves, cafeteria-sized mixing pots, washing basins, and water-storage units. A communications crew and truck shoots up a short-wave antenna and uses cell-phone connections for e-mail. Another group rolls up with a bathroom, shower, and laundry unit. Chain saw and clean-up crews arrive with their modules.

At night, the Southern Baptists gather to talk about the day, letting the emotions flow, and this is followed by prayer. The leaders say this practice is critical because of the stress of disaster relief. That stress may include the difficulty of working outdoors in extremely hot weather and the emotional drain of seeing so many hurting people day after day.

Grace and Courage

As rescue operations proceeded, stories began to emerge. In the aftermath of Katrina and Rita, many survivors credited unlikely heroes who rescued them or gave them shelter.

In Biloxi, 13-year-old Phillip Bullard leaped to action as adults panicked when water rushed through every wall of their home. A neighbor, Michael Lee, said that the storm started to "sound like a howling wolf." An elderly neighbor who had experience with several hurricanes said he knew that something unusually fierce had arrived as "everything started to shake and rattle like I have never heard it before."

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The young man cradled the youngest child, floated the oldest adult out the window, and coaxed his twin sister to abandon the house and trust him for guidance. He led his mother and grandmother over a path of almost floating furniture. All told, he saved more than a dozen people. His mother, Vanessa Posey, said, "I just thank God for Phillip. We would not be here but for the grace of God and the courage of my son."

In Pascagoula, Mississippi, a small city at the eastern edge of the storm, David Bardwell's friends at Light House Baptist Church tell how he saved 21 lives. Bardwell himself declines to talk about his heroics, preferring to give God the entire spotlight.

Bardwell stayed to watch over his mother's tenants who couldn't afford to evacuate. As the storm roared across town with a 22-foot storm surge and 125-mph winds, Bardwell heard people screaming for help. With water up to his neck and waves pounding, Bardwell persuaded his brother to go with him to help. Between them, they brought 21 survivors into a building on higher ground, First Baptist.

The Southern Baptists soon set up a disaster station there. Associate Pastor Dennis Smith, who stayed at the church during the storm, is an example of the many Southern Baptist heroes.

Smith, who suffers from the aftereffects of polio, is no newcomer to adversity. He was determined to best Katrina. He told CT, "Ninety percent of our members' houses were destroyed—it breaks the heart—but no one was killed."

Moving around via an electric scooter, Smith visited the ill and injured and talked to the devastated. When necessary, he would unbend with great effort from the scooter and walk to comfort the grieving—countless times each day.

On the edges of Pascagoula, Mississippi, Pastor Russell McDonald threw out the baby grand piano, the sound system, the carpets, and the pews.

But he believes that God saved his house in order to give him the task of making the church bigger and better. Standing amid dead rabbits, fish, and a live alligator, McDonald said that after the storm he told himself, "Hey, brother, listen, God knew I have a congregation to care for and a need to rebuild.

"He saved my home for the task of binding up the wounds. That is what the gospel is all about."

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Across the Red River from Shreveport in Bossier City, Louisiana, First Baptist Church helped care for Katrina survivors in the CenturyTel Center, a venue for concerts and big gatherings. First Baptist met Katrina evacuees' needs ranging from food to furniture. As Katrina survivors moved to more permanent dwellings, Rita prompted a second exodus into Northwest Louisiana. First Baptist receptionist Kaira Krysinski said Rita evacuees flowed steadily into the church seeking help. "They just see this large steeple from the highway, and they pull off because it's a symbol of hope."


From Saddleback Church (affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention) in Orange County, California, Rick Warren and a team flew to the Gulf Coast. They immediately promised to pay the salaries of at least 400 pastors of destroyed churches for three months.

Warren said, "Our hope is particularly to bring white and African-American churches together." As of September 29, 371 churches across the country had volunteered to help, and 60 churches had been paired.

Warren says that Katrina created an opportunity for black and white churches to cooperate. "African Americans are getting our top priority." Although there is still distrust, Warren says that during his meetings with pastors in the Gulf Coast, he sensed a new willingness to work together. "Just talking to them, you can tell there is a new openness. Everyone realizes that a disaster doesn't discriminate."

The California pastor feels a bond with Katrina victims. "This is our sixth disaster that we have dealt with," he says. "There was the Los Angeles riots, the Laguna fires, and the mudslides. We also became involved with 9/11 and the Asian tsunami."

His wife, Kay, is widely admired for the way she talks about and has handled personal suffering. In Baton Rouge the week after the storm, woman after woman, girl after girl, came up to her. They did not talk about their own Katrina suffering, but usually just thanked Kay for giving them strength and hope by sharing about her bout with breast cancer and everyday struggles.

Kay said that between touching and hugging, "God has taught us the value of presence, choosing to suffer with people."

The Warrens say that they don't have chain saws and kitchens like the Southern Baptist rescue teams. But they do have a huge network of people willing to be a presence and raise some money. "What we have to offer is a shoulder and our heart," Kay says. "Disaster agencies come and go, but we want to be a partner of the local churches."

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In the California mountains, the members of Lake Gregory Community Church in Crestline contemplated the fate of the coastal peoples caught in Katrina. They remembered how two years ago, they too had to flee their homes due to a natural disaster—lethal brush fires. They viewed the Gulf Coast disaster as if it were their own.

A church related to Lake Gregory Community sent a man in a car with supplies to Pascagoula, Mississippi. One of his small-group members had a relative there. "I have heard this story ten times. People got up and moved to help," a small-group member recounts.

Dave Holden, the pastor of Lake Gregory Community, volunteered his church to be a helpmate to Calvary Baptist Church in Pascagoula. The Mississippi church was devastated. "Before the hurricane, he had 90 people in his church," says Holden of Pastor Johnny Beaver. "He had 9 last Sunday. Half of his congregation has lost 100 percent of their housing."

Holden called Beaver in Pascagoula. His eagerness to help tripped out faster than the stranger in Mississippi could believe.

"Hey, Johnny, I live out in California and my church wants to pay your salary."

There was dead silence on the telephone line. "Johnny?"

"Who are you?" the Mississippi pastor drawled out suspiciously.

Holden then allowed his explanation to catch up with his enthusiasm. He explained his own church's experience with disaster and his connection with Warren's Purpose-Driven disaster network.

Then, to Holden's consternation, Pastor Johnny said he had to go and abruptly hung up the phone. Holden was speechless.

Pastor Johnny explained in a subsequent phone call that he had needed to attend to an emergency: A member had just discovered that his house was filled with mud. Pastor Johnny told Holden he was grateful that he could now help channel some funds to his members.

Holden listened in astonishment. "Man, you are either the real deal or nuts to hang up on me," the Californian said.

The two pastors prayed together over the phone and promised to keep in touch. Another church also provided a trailer house for Pastor Johnny and his family.

Speaking with CT, Holden reflected on his phone call with Pastor Johnny. He realized it wasn't about money. The call was about grieving hearts and how love binds up.

"You can hear that the money is just a start," Holden said. "There is something about being present that allows the thought: I am not alone. That is priceless."

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Tony Carnes, based in New York City, is a senior writer for Christianity Today. Additional reporting by Deann Alford in Austin, Texas.

Related Elsewhere:

See also today's sidebars:

Why? | Victims and pundits grope for meaning, political and religious.
Inside CT: Be the Change | How Christianity Today covered a busy hurricane season before Wilma.

More Christianity Today coverage of hurricanes Katrina and Rita and their aftermath is at our full coverage area.

The Southern Baptist Convention's Baptist Press has a collection of its articles on hurricane relief efforts. Associated Baptist Press also has a collection of its own stories.

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