Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Minnesota Lutherans, Mississippi Baptists team up to bring Katrina relief

Woodbury Lutheran is entering the second phase of a relief effort in th Gulf South.

A disaster of biblical proportions call for a corresponding response.

In the year since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, members and friends of Woodbury Lutheran Church have donated more than 12,000 hours of labor, $20,000 in cash and a semitrailer full of goods to relief efforts there. Nearly 500 volunteers for Woodbury Lutheran’s “Katrina Hope” project have traveled 1.3 million miles to and from Ocean Springs, Mississippi, since “adopting” the city last year.
The outpouring of support for so distant a community might be surprising, but not to Vicki Strong, Woodbury Lutheran’s communications director and Katrina Hope coordinator.
From the outset, she said, “I think we all had a vision that we would be in it long-term.”

Woodbury Mayor Bill Hargis and Dr. Michael Barnett, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ocean Springs, which hosts the Minnesota volunteers, were on hand August 10 at Woodbury Lutheran to celebrate their efforts and kick off a second phase, “Rebuilding Hope.”

Hargis told the audience, 120 strong, “Sometimes God does unique and humbling things to bring us together.” He said Katrina Hope participants “did our community proud.” Of Hargis, Barnett later said, “You’re blessed to have a mayor who loves Jesus.”

Speakers shared stories of adversity and survival. Barnett told of a 90-year-old woman who survived Ka-trina by standing on a chair on top of her dining room table in water up to her neck. Another, a diabetic, received a special $500 pair of shoes from an anonymous donor who opened a tab at a pharmacy for anyone who needed medicine.

Tanya Ehret led a group of four adults and nine 13-year-old Girl Scouts, unsure at first how the teen-agers could contribute. Upon arrival, they quickly busied themselves with yard work. At one location they learned the homeowners had lost their treasured azalea bushes in the storm.

Determined to replace them, the girls found a nursery that had mistakenly received several azalea bushes in a recent shipment, which they promptly purchased and planted for the grateful couple.
Jude Lindquist, who is planning her fourth trip to the area, spoke earnestly about building a house for a Miss Dana, who lives in a van and has never owned a house. “This is the house that faith and love is going to build,” she said.

Sixteen-year-old Allison Baranick spent her March spring break in Ocean Springs with “Team 12.” She expected it to look like a war zone and was surprised how much the other teams had already accomplished. But a bridge with its deck in scattered pieces illustrated “how forceful the water was,” she said. The experience showed her that even when someone is “clinging to God, not everything is sunshine and rainbows … [but] you can have true joy even though there’s so much devastation.”
Barnett contrasted the efforts of individuals and churches with that of the federal agency charged with disaster relief.
“Y’all did something that FEMA could not do … only the church can put a FEMA trailer in the driveway and tell them how to make it a home,” Barnett said.
How did the people of Woodbury come to love neighbors 1,300 miles away? Hargis explained: “Some-times God does unique and humbling things to bring us together.”
One may speculate on the “why,” but the “how” is that Woodbury Lutheran’s youth minister, Derek Broten, was attending a church conference in New Orleans when the hurricane hit. He rode out the storm with a thousand others in a hotel and later barely made it out of the city when the flooding began. What he saw in the aftermath led him, upon his return home, to gather church members and insist on action.

Meanwhile, member Maria Engen, whose aunt drowned in the flooding, watched the television coverage in horror as her hometown descended into chaos. Among family members who live in the region was her brother, a pastor in Mississippi, who put her in touch with First Baptist Church.

The first team of 21, including a St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter and photographer and led by member Kevin Doyle, set out September 13, 2005. Before their return a few days later, teams 2 and 3 were in formation. At the celebration event, Woodbury Lutheran’s senior pastor Dean Nadasdy recognized Strong’s coordination efforts in dramatic fashion. He presented her one red rose for each of the 17 teams she’s helped launch.

In the coming year, organizers hope to send people with construction expertise to build two homes, including one for Miss Dana. The other is for the Gray family, whose 28 members lost 13 homes among them. They managed to build one house from scrap lumber scavenged from the post-flood debris field. Strong’s hope is that the proposed home will allow them to be together for Christmas, rather than in their separate FEMA trailers.

Plans are also in the works to send a female-only team to foster community-building among Ocean Springs women.
“The community is broken,” Strong said. The team would offer massages and make-overs as a way to “introduce these women to each other,” she said. Volunteers will also be trained to spot and make referrals for survivors showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Strong’s other hope is that Hargis will make good on his promise to join a team.

“He keeps telling me he’s going on a trip, so I have to hold him to it,” she said.

Photos from the trips can be seen at com/ph/woodburylutheran/my_photos