It all started with the simple question, “what do you want for Christmas?” As my wife Kathy and I talked it over, we quickly agreed we didn’t need more “stuff.” This year we each felt compelled to do something different. Something that might honor the One who has been so good to us over 15 years of marriage. “Let’s go on a mission trip!”
And so it was that five of us, including our eight-year old son Daniel, set off for Biloxi, Mississippi on December 23, 2005. We had received a generous response from a humble request to fellow church members, friends and family for gift cards and toys to take with us – around $5,000 worth. Not much considering the utter destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina but, in God’s economy and for His purpose, it was of course just right. We arrived late that evening at Woolmarket Baptist Church whose Pastor, Paul Crowley, graciously agreed “to leave the light on for us” so we would have a place to sleep in their gym.
As Christmas Eve dawned, we made our way in to East Biloxi to help the small congregation at East Howard Baptist Church prepare food baskets to deliver to area shut-ins and the elderly. To sum up the scenery: jaw-dropping devastation. You would have thought the hurricane roared through the city four days ago, not four months. Until you drive the streets of Biloxi, you have no idea and, no, pictures don’t do it justice. Driving without street signs was interesting but we had been told that East Howard was one of the last structures standing as you go towards the beach; that certainly made it easier to spot.
We arrived to meet Robert, a disenchanted seeker residing in an old RV in the church parking lot. Robert has grown weary of temporary volunteers swooping in with their fancy church vans for a few days before returning to their respective fantasy lands. “Taking pictures of our misery?” were the words he greeted us with. We met little Brittany and her dog, Cocoa, and quickly learned we ought not to pet the dog because, “he just fell in the bucket.” By bucket, she means bathroom – seems their FEMA trailer is extremely crowded and they use the real bathroom for storage so, therefore, the bucket.
Soon Deacon Roy Hill and his wife Linda arrived with Linda’s elderly mother, Ms. Lillian. This was simply another day of ministry for them. East Howard is currently without a pastor and has a few (about 30) members, with most of the work performed by fewer still. Roy and Linda have been going nonstop for months reaching out to the community, primarily through a food pantry ministry. The day’s work for Roy started with cleaning up the sewage that had overflowed near the church kitchen during the night. Plumbing problems and power disruptions are now the norm in Biloxi. As Linda got food together, she shared her testimony of how they struggled to get the food pantry going until one night God convicted her of gambling. She quit on a Wednesday. The food pantry opened that Friday.
We spent time with local firefighters, listening to their harrowing story of riding out the storm strapped to the top of their trucks so that recovery teams might find their bodies. We visited the local hospital and a retirement home on Christmas morning to pass out toys and other gifts. We went door to door in neighborhoods, some of which are now just FEMA trailer parks, and would randomly pull up beside people on the street to hand them a gift card or two along with a toy for their children. When we stopped one man to say we had something for him, he took one look at the church bus and said sarcastically, “What is it – a tract?” It was an odd delight to hand him a Wal-Mart gift card that was simply labeled, “given with love in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Whenever possible, we unashamedly prayed with the folks we met: the firefighters at Station 2, the nursing supervisor at Biloxi Regional, security guards at one of the FEMA parks, a retired shipyard worker whose home is no more. We worshipped with East Howard Baptist in their unheated sanctuary on Christmas Day while the cold wind rattled the plastic covering the sides of their church. Shame on us for ever complaining about the temperature from our comfortable pews back home.
There are many more stories and precious memories from this truly memorable Christmas. Like seeing our son race back to the bus and exclaim, “We need another toy for those kids!” But for me, the real testimony has been the opportunity to share my faith with friends and family. (“You did what for Christmas? Why?”) There are many people that do many good deeds in this life. I believe it is imperative that, as Christians, we go on the offensive for the Kingdom and perform our good deeds in the name of our wonderful Lord and Savior. Otherwise, we run the risk of being known as just another group of “nice folks.” I’ve noticed too that ministry often doesn’t look like you originally envision it. It usually ends up being much messier. And, much more meaningful.