Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

As people along the eastern seaboard of the United States begin recovering from Hurricane Irene, it is worth noting that six years ago today Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi impacting millions of people in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. I lived in Gulfport, MS and served at FBC Gulfport at the time. If you are affiliated with an NC Baptist church you probably recognize the picture.

Photo © James Edward Bates

We were the “poster child,” literally, for disaster relief the following year. In our church we had over 80 families displaced by the storm, but everyone was effected. God taught me so much through the days following Katrina. I often tell people that I would not change going through Katrina, but I would not want to do it again!

Because of Katrina I learned some big lessons. I learned about insurance, filing claims, and working with adjustors, both personally and on behalf of the church. I learned about church building planning and relocation. I learned how to write a grant to receive disaster relief funds. I learned to appreciate cell phone signals, electricity, and gasoline. I learned some small lessons like the importance of carrying hand sanitizer wherever you go.

I also learned the value of community–true community. My neighbors shared like never before. Our church family shared with each other. We were able to put any differences aside for the common cause of recovery. The priority was recovery and meeting people’s needs. I learned how caring the Christian community was as volunteer after volunteer came from across the nation. Of course, NC Baptist men stayed the longest and had the broadest impact. Yet, they weren’t the only ones. Volunteers from small churches and mega-churches across the nation sent money, supplies, and volunteer teams to help us in our time of need. There was even a Christian band in Norway that held a benefit concert and sent money through a church in Texas to help us.

Through all of this, though, I learned the most about God, His grace, and His sovereignty. In the Bible when Job lost everything he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21, ESV). That verse carried me through the weeks and months after landfall. Job lost all his material possessions and all of his children, yet he still praised the LORD. As we teach our kids, based on the folks at Orange, it’s the principle that we can trust God no matter what. And we can praise God no matter what.

We sang “Blessed Be Your Name” the first Sunday after Katrina in a joint worship service with two other congregations. I remember because we really sang it. Through tears we sang the confession, “You give and take away, you give and take away. My heart will choose to say, Lord, blessed your name.” In those first few weeks after Katrina we knew we were powerless. We had nothing to rely on but God. We had to trust Him and Him alone.

I also learned a lot about priorities. I learned that much of what we get stressed about in life, especially church-world, really doesn’t matter at the end of the day.  When there is a common crisis, people tend to pull together and rally amidst the discomfort. The crisis is bigger than any one person. We had a corporate sense of mission born out of struggle, what Alan Hirsch refers to as communitas. Unfortunately, as things returned to normal and the crisis waned, people, including myself, began to let their own agendas and schedules crowd away the notions of a common cause greater than any one of us.

When it comes to disciple-making, I wonder if we don’t appreciate the crisis we are in. Perhaps the decline in disciples in the West has gone on so long that we simply have accepted it as normal and moved on with our own personal agendas. Katrina taught me that life can change in an instant. We really don’t have time to waste on our petty personal preferences. There is a mission that is greater than any one of us, that is to proclaim that Jesus died to redeem us and purify for Himself a people for His own possession (Titus 2:14). We have a mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God among all nations so that He can hear more and more people singing “Blessed be the name of the LORD!”

So, where were you six years ago today? More importantly, are you singing “Blessed be the name of the LORD” in your crisis? And will you proclaim Jesus so that others can sing His praises?