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Reviving Mississippi

FCA’s Bill Buckley and his team bring relief and ministry to the Gulf Coast.
By Janet Goreham

I need You, Jesus...To come to my rescue...Where else can I go... * From the streets you could hear their song. The collection of voices grew louder as the sound of worship drifted down the newly cemented driveway and floated into the humid summer night breeze. Within the walls of the recently erected Gulf Coast home gathered a group of young adults from Church of the Good Shepherd—a group whose lives one year earlier had changed as quickly as the flood waters rose on August 29, 2005, the day Hurricane Katrina hit.

The smell of fresh paint lingered in the air and emotions of revitalized hope welled within the souls of the group united in worship. Their voices never waned, yet each person needed only to steal a glance out the window to be reminded of the devastation that still surrounded them. A few blocks south, the gulf laid as still as a sheet of unscathed glass, brilliantly reflecting the slowly changing orange and blue sky overhead. Ironically it was this same water that rose nearly 30 feet and flooded every home from the coast to the railroad tracks almost a mile inland. The unobstructed view of the gulf from the windows was a reminder of the storm that had left almost nothing standing in between.

What was once a thriving neighborhood just north of Beach Boulevard, the main artery that runs the length of the Mississippi coast, now is a wasteland of mangled live oak trees that still hold remnants of carpet and clothing high in their twisted branches. Piles of concrete, sheetrock, fences and household appliances now cover the ground. And though the streets have since been cleared for traffic, very few people occupy the area.

 Your Turn

If you’d like to contribute to the FCA Gulf Coast relief effort or to learn how you can coordinate a relief team, contact Bill Buckley at bbuckley@fca.org. Potential teams can expect affordable housing and food for roughly $10/day per person.

Hurricane Statistics*

North Atlantic hurricane season:
June – November

2005 hurricane count:

28 named storms
15 hurricanes (7 considered major, 4 hit the U.S.)

Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi…**

caused $125 billion in damage.

wiped out 90 percent of the buildings along the Biloxi/Gulf Port coast.

*U.S. Census
**Wikipedia.com

It was this decrepit imitation of a once thriving community that met the eyes of FCA Area Representative Bill Buckley as he stepped out of his truck onto the shores of Pass Christian, Mississippi, just three days after the storm. Yet even the sight of the wreckage didn’t prepare him for the stench that nearly knocked him over as he opened his door. “The smell from rotting stuff in the refrigerators and rotting tractor trailer loads of meat and seafood was overwhelming,” recalled Buckley. “My first reaction was, ‘How do you ever recover from something like this? Where do we start to help these people?’”

He couldn’t suppress the feelings of helplessness and doubt that crept into his mind as he wondered how God could use Him in a situation of this size. But as he drove home to Canton, Miss., he began to feel God generating a plan. “I realized that we did not have FCA staff on the coast; it was one of the areas in Mississippi that was not covered. So I called Bill Buckner (FCA Regional Director in Jackson) and Mark Gassman (FCA Senior Vice President of Field Ministry), and we agreed that it was unacceptable for us not to be there during this time.”

Buckley and his wife, Mary, soon packed their bags and headed to the coast. A friend offered them a temporary place to stay—utilities and rent paid—and they began to establish an FCA presence. “In one way our ministry is a departure from what a normal FCA staff member does; but in another way, we believe it will be big for FCA’s original vision,” said Buckley. “The beauty of it is that coaches, athletic directors and players invite us into their homes to do ministry. We’ve made some real friends, and they know that we’re here through the tough times. We believe that when things get somewhat back to normal, we’ll really have a foundation to build on.”

As soon as Buckley arrived, he connected with athletic directors, coaches and administrators from schools that had been hit by the storm, and formed partnerships with churches in the area—including Church of the Good Shepherd—to ensure that FCA would work in agreement with the churches’ relief efforts.

One of the first connections Buckley made was with Myron Labot, athletic director of Pass Christian High School. “When I met Bill after the storm he gave me the feeling that he was here to help us,” said Labot. “He said that they didn’t want anything in return, and I could tell that Bill really meant it.”

Of all the schools in the area, Buckley saw that Pass Christian High School had been hit the hardest. Before the storm, the district was composed of four schools: two elementary, one junior high and the high school. One elementary school currently remains usable. The other elementary and the middle school were completely wiped out, and the high school took on 17 feet of water, which washed out the entire ground floor.

“Every week [Labot] tells me what the school needs,” said Buckley, “all the way from equipment needs to cleanup needs to rebuilding needs. We stay in close contact and probably talk once every seven to 10 days.”

While Buckley, his wife and FCA interns Mike Barbera and James Cochran are the only FCA staff members on site in the community, staff from all over the country have come to the aid of Pass Christian High School. When Labot told Buckley that the school was in need of 30 letterman jackets at $90 per jacket, Buckley sent out the message to FCA staff across the country. They responded, and the cost of the jackets was covered in one day.

But the FCA staff has sent much more than money. “We’ve gotten so many of our teams through FCA,” Buckley explained. “We put the need out—that the Pass Christian High School athletic facility needed to be rebuilt—and asked if people could send teams down.” Ninety percent of the work teams that have traveled down have come from FCA.

Buckley (center) and his teams help to reconstruct homes damaged by flood waters. Many families were forced to inhabit trailers (R) supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Currently, Buckley spends the majority of his days with a crowbar in one hand and his cell phone in the other. He understands that no matter how much physical labor he and his teams offer, their focus and ultimate goal is to see people’s lives changed for Jesus Christ. “We can’t get caught up in nails and boards; but at the same time, it’s all spiritual,” said Buckley. “Everything we’re doing is focused on Christ. We arrive on a site and pray, ‘Lord, use us here.’”

Buckley has caught a glimpse of how the Lord is working through the teams that have come to help. “Everybody that we work for is so grateful—many of them to the point of tears,” he said. “When we show up with a team of 30 kids and work eight hours, and do in one day what it would take that family two weeks or more to do, they just seem so thankful.”

Added Labot, “We’ve had so much support from people who put their lives on hold to come assist us with our rebuilding efforts; it makes us feel good to see people helping; we welcome the opportunity to return the favor someday.”

Many Christians affected by the storm have chosen to understand their situation in the same light. Like the young adults who gathered to worship in the midst of the devastation, many have been able to see God work in their community for the better. “I think that when we look back we’ll be able to say ‘blessed Katrina’ because of all the good the Lord’s brought out of it,” said Barbera, a Gulf Coast native. “To many believers who lost everything, it was just material; it wasn’t their whole life. They still have hope and joy through it all.”

No one knows how long it will take the Mississippi coast to fully recover from Katrina, or even if the community will resemble what it was before the storm, but that doesn’t matter. Buckley and his teams will continue to focus on the ministry that God has given them. “We’re just taking it one month at a time. Even though we’ve seen so much relief and recovery, there are still some big questions. What we need is prayer for the people—that they continue to have hope—and prayer that we would be wise as we continue to relate to them so that many will come to know Him through this.”

 

*Jared Anderson, Desperation Band, “Rescue”

photos: Courtesy of Bethany Hermes

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