After sharing a pot of Starbucks coffee, Shari Crooks, Cathy Young, Jeanette Lawson, and I pulled away from Shari's Huntsville, Alabama home on September 9, 2005three homeschool moms and a nurse on a mission to a hurricane-devastated town we'd never heard of to help a community we didn't know.
Our adventure began four days earlier as I watched a mother trapped at the Superdome in New Orleans cradling her wailing baby and screaming desperately into the news camera, "Get us out of here!" I wanted to hijack a big rig, fill it with supplies, and head up my own one-woman rescue mission to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast.
But what would I do with my three boys (Josiah, nine, Eric, six, and Cameron, three)? Where would I get supplies? With so many people needing help, where would I start? I decided God would have to use someone better suited for such a mission. I'd just write a check and be done with it.
But the images kept haunting me even after I turned off my television: a message scrawled on a roof, "diabetic, need insulin or will die"; a grown man tearfully describing how Katrina's violent flood waters stole his wife away.
But what could I, a busy, financially strapped mother, do? In Galatians 6:10, the apostle Paul said, "As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers." I began to pray for an opportunity to help.
I awoke the next day to find a message in my e-mail in-box from Shari Crooks and Cathy Youngtwo moms from my homeschool support group. They wanted me to go with them to deliver desperately needed supplies to the people of Perkinston, Mississippi, 25 miles north of the Coast. Cathy heard about the community through Gene Daniels, a Southern Baptist pastor she found through an Internet search on Gulf Coast churches. He told her of his town's plight: The military food rations FEMA provided were too hard for the older people to chew and too salty for toddlers, they didn't have enough water or cleaning supplies to begin restoring their broken homes, and some people had been wearing the same underwear for more than a week. He said it was even worse farther south in Gulfport. As I finished reading the e-mail, James 1:27 came to mind: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress."
I started packing that evening and sent out an army of e-mails imploring others to help. Huntsville Hospital donated 23 boxes of linens and hospital gowns; the Church at Hampton Cove let us dig through donations they'd already collected. Jeanette Lawson, a nurse from the hospital that donated the linens, joined our team.
We spent the morning loading boxes into a borrowed 25-foot camper, drank our coffee, then headed out.
The landscape changed abruptly as we crossed the state line from Alabama into Mississippi. Debris lined the roadpine trees had fallen on each other like pick-up sticks; a single chair sat in the middle of an empty field. In Hattiesburg, several trees looked like they'd been skinned; in the countryside, Katrina's winds had ripped up big patches of grass.
When we finally pulled into the Perkinston Volunteer Fire Department eight hours after we left Huntsville, it appeared the whole town had gathered to greet us. The city's two ancient fire trucks had been moved outside so the garage could be used to receive, organize, and store donations. By the time we arrived, boxes were piled five-high and spilling out into the driveway.
They hugged us as though we were long-lost kin and gratefully unloaded our small haul. Just a few minutes after we pulled in, an 18-wheeler, much like the one I'd envisioned hijacking a couple days before, rolled in. To my surprise, it was filled with donations from my home state of Iowa. As I helped unload boxes marked "Iowa loves you, Mississippi," Cathy leaned over and whispered that God was winking at me.
He couldn't have been clearer; I was exactly where he wanted medoing my best to be his hands and feet, serving those who'd lost so much.
After spending the remainder of the evening listening to the volunteer fire fighters and their families share how difficult the days following Katrina had been, we finally retired to our camper. We had a big day ahead of us in Gulfport.
With one mission completed, we were ready to take on the shelters of Gulfport. Pastor Daniels had asked us to bring toys for the children in the shelters and as many Bibles as we could. "People need God's Word now more than ever," he told us.
Shari, Cathy, Jeanette, and I inched our way down the main highway leading into Gulfport, the damage worsening with every mile. A Kmart parking lot was littered with clothing from one end to the other. Desperate families rummaged through the mess, trying to collect enough clothes to get by for a few days. A giant plywood sign in front of a Home Depot announced "free ice, given in Jesus' name." Some parking lots had been transformed into what looked like Third-World shantytownswith tarps hung haphazardly over cots and sleeping bags, and laundry strung up between light poles.
It took us more than an hour to cover 20 miles because of downed power lines and broken traffic lights, but we finally arrived at our destinationan elementary school that had been turned into a temporary shelter by the Red Cross.
Anxious to get to the children, we grabbed boxes and headed inside. But a Red Cross worker met us at the door and curtly asked us to leave the items so they could distribute them later.
I felt like a deflated balloon. I came all the way from Huntsville to bless somebody. How dare they mess with my plans? I sulked self-righteously.
As we walked back to the truck, a young mother and her freckle-faced little girl approached us. Jeanette, still aching to bless a child, grabbed a porcelain doll out of my box and gave it to the girl we came to know as Leah.
We listened as the young mother, Senica, explained why she'd come to the school. Katrina ripped the roof off her low-income apartment, allowing torrential rain to pour in. They were sleeping on the one bed that hadn't succumbed to the deadly black mold that grows in the aftermath of hurricanes. For days they had no water, so they had to bathe in a creek and brush their teeth with Diet Coke. She couldn't collect her last paycheck because the hurricane had destroyed the daycare center where she worked. And to make matters worse, her mother couldn't wire her money because the banks had temporarily suspended transfers.
"All I want," Senica told me as she nervously snapped and unsnapped the clasp on her overalls, "is to get enough money to go back to Illinois, crawl into my mother's bed, and forget about all this."
The FEMA agent inside the building behind us was her last hope. As I looked into Senica's brave yet frightened eyes, Shari's early morning prayer came to mind: "Use us in any capacity you desire, Lord. Whether it be to help 1 person or 100, you know the need." I realized Senica was the one for whom Shari had prayed.
Suddenly we were following Senica to her apartment. We were sure once we got her back to Huntsville, we could collect enough money to get her the rest of the way home.
In less than an hour, we salvaged what little we could from her apartment and jammed it into her minivan. As I loaded Senica's beloved dishes into the last available spot in the van, Proverbs 16:9 popped into my head: "In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps."
How grateful I was that God got in the way of my plans. Senica spent three days with me in Huntsville before heading home. We cooked spaghetti together, took our kids hiking, and chatted into the wee hours of the morning. We spoke easily of God, and Senica recognized how he'd taken care of her after the hurricane. She'd been influenced by numerous religions as a child and wasn't certain what she believed. But she was sick of drifting and ready to find out. She hasn't surrendered her life to him yet, but I'm confident it's only a matter of time. Like she said, "God is all over me."
The day she left, I started humming a song that echoes Isaiah 61:3, "He gives beauty for ashes, strength for fear." Just before the hurricane hit, Senica went through a painful divorce that left her struggling to make ends meet. "I should have gone home then," she admitted during one of our late-night chats. "But I wanted to prove to everyone I could make it on my own."
Although Katrina brought pain to so many, some like Senica learned to call it a "blessing." "Had the hurricane never hit, I'd still be stuck in Mississippi," she said as we parted. "But now I see how God used it to give me the kick I needed."
Senica and I talked a few days after she returned to her hometown in Illinois. Leah was already thriving in her new first-grade class, and Senica enrolled in medical transcription school where she'll graduate this May. A local church heard she was a hurricane survivor and invited her to services. She loves it there and attends every week.
I marvel at how God used three stay-at-home moms and a nurse to accomplish so much. But there are still thousands of others like Senica scratching out an existence in rotting apartments and overcrowded shelters. Though it's tempting to push the disaster to the back of our minds, they need our prayers, donations, and help now as much as ever.
Sarah Pavlik, a freelance writer, lives in Alabama. Read the full, regularly updated account of her trip at www.mis siontoperkinston.blogspot.com.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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January/February 2006, Vol. 28, No. 1, Page 32