The worst hurricane season on record has come to an end. But the work to repair the damage left in its wake will continue for months to come.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church played a role in helping to rebuild the lives of those who were left homeless or helpless. Some welcomed refugees into their homes. Others donated food, clothing and trailers. Many opened their wallets. Still others gave up their vacation days to pitch in to restore homes and yards, and to hold hands and give hugs.
It's the first time the OPC rolled up her sleeves in an effort to offer "hands-on" relief to those in our denomination, to others in the Presbyterian Church of America, and to neighbors in need.
Since Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma roared into our consciousness, Lake Ponchartrain, Category 5 and Picayune, Mississippi have been added to our vocabulary. So has the term disaster relief.
The OPC's disaster response began just a few days after Katrina hit and the levees broke, flooding New Orleans. It was prompted by phone calls and e-mails of so many OPs who were horrified by the pictures of the homeless, including those living in the squalor of the New Orleans Convention Center. Many yearned to give of themselves and their checkbooks, especially in the name of Christ.
"The response from so many in the OPC who wanted to help was overwhelming," said David Haney, the OPC's coordinator of volunteers for disaster relief. "We were determined to provide a way for them to use their gifts through our denomination."
David first made sure that no OP churches were in need of help. When he heard about the PCA's Mission to North America's disaster relief efforts, he flew to Mississippi on September 10 to see if the OPC could partner in the clean-up efforts in PCA churches. Soon OP work teams of between six and 20 arrived in Picayune, Mississippi, on Sundays and returned home on Thursdays. Team members slept in the First Presbyterian Church in Picayune and showered behind tarps surrounding swing sets in the yard.
Volunteers pulled branches and other debris from yards, tore out drywall, patched roofs, repaired chainsaws, or cooked meals. They learned about insects called love bugs and grew in their admiration for those who live with steamy Southern days.
The OPC purchased a tool trailer and stocked it with tools donated by money sent from OPC congregations. Many volunteers donated their own tools or brought equipment from home, including pickup trucks, trailers, a Bobcat, a 5th-wheel RV trailer, as well as a motor home.
At the same time, people clamored for information about OP churches located in the wide swath of destruction. Two men emerged as voices of the victims. Phil Hodson, licensed by the OPC to serve as pulpit supply for the mission work in Longview, Texas, and Jack Sawyer, pastor of Pineville OPC in Pineville, Louisiana, both gave of their time and energy to serve hurricane victims.
Even before the first hurricane stormed ashore, Phil e-mailed OP pastors in four coastal states offering to house evacuees. He also e-mailed his congregation of thirty and nearby Christian camps looking for places to shelter the victims.
Soon two vans of New Orleans refugees pulled into Phil's driveway and were herded off to the homes of members of the congregation and neighboring OP church members and to camps. The "cup of cold water" campaign began. Calls were made to local schools and colleges to take in refugee students. Church members drove these strangers to FEMA offices, the Red Cross, clothing stores, the dentist and doctors. Others dropped off meals, supplies and money to the host families to help offset expenses.
At the same time, people from congregations around America sent checks to Jack Sawyer, who distributed $100,000 to the Shepherd Center, a nonprofit organization that was formed by churches in the Pineville area to help the needy. After Hurricane Rita pummeled the Pineville region, the center helped more than 1,400 families.
Pineville OPC members also opened their doors to strangers in need. Several helped through their work or as volunteers, such as a doctor writing prescriptions for patients in local shelters, a 12-year-old caring for stray pets in an animal shelter, or a college student repairing homes during her fall break.
Members of other churches donated their time, such as sorting clothing and canned beans at Houston's Astrodome or gathering mattresses and bedding to ship to Pineville.
In the midst of the disaster relief, Hurricane Wilma pounded Florida, which redirected the recovery efforts to Fellowship OPC in Lake Worth. More than 40 volunteers from nine states pitched in to remove branches, repair a 240-foot fence; reroof, tarp, patch and reshingle homes; and replant palm trees.
The last of the OP teams wound down their work by Thanksgiving, leaving cleared lawns, blue-tarped roofs, and piles of collected debris on the roadway. But they also left relieved homeowners and encouraged congregations that were devastated by the storms. As one pastor noted, "Thank God our fences blew down so we could meet our neighbors."
"Those from here who worked with the disaster relief team had just as blessed an experience as those who came down," said Henry Stanke, pastor of Fellowship OPC in Lake Worth. "For the congregation, the blessing for them is to work together in the Lord."
As winter approaches, some families have trickled back to their homes in New Orleans. Others have planted their tender roots in other soil. The work gloves, boots and mosquito repellent are stowed away. The Bobcat and trailer are parked in a safe place. The disaster relief office-on-wheels is stored, prepared for the next emergency.
"We are preparing to be even better equipped to serve wherever and however we can be used in relief ministry," said Haney. "Praise God that our congregations were ready to make their theology practical! Our denomination has demonstrated that she is ready to roll up her sleeves and get behind a diaconal effort with more than just our checkbooks."
Until Christ returns on the clouds, we can expect disasters to plague our peaceful lives. But thanks to the donations and efforts of so many, we will be better prepared to offer a cold cup of water.