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The Path to Pearlington

September 17, 2005


It’s 4 AM. I had to look in the little box in the corner of the computer screen to see what time of what day this is.

I’m sitting in a chair with a handle. When one pulls on the handle the bottom of the chair rises. When one leans back, the chair back falls. It was my bed for a time last night – another one of those sleep-in-your-clothes nights – 14 in a row and counting. I am now using it as a sort of reclin-o-office. My first week here I used my vehicle for my office …and bedroom, kitchen, closet, etc. That office-bedroom-kitchen-closet-on-wheels is sitting along the side of the Interstate some 30 miles from here. It died.

My vehicle actually died 3 times yesterday. It had to. If it hadn’t I wouldn’t be here sitting in this recline-o-office in a church I don’t know the name of in a place I don’t think has a name following a trip to a town called Pearl-something. I need to find these names. I think they’re going to be part of something that has a name written all over it – GOD.

Thursday, Tom Eckblad, a counselor from my home church in Minneapolis, joined me in Baton Rouge. The day was one of going to shelters and meeting with pastors and shelter workers. In the evening, we spent time listening to an exhausted pastor – a pastor who fought tears as he spoke. We gave money for food to a displaced New Orleanian now sleeping on the street who openly wept when we did. We spent time with a family from New Orleans who lost everything and is now living in a shelter but who desperately wants out – a family one wants to weep for. And we spent time praying as we walked the top of my Louisiana mountain – the levee which holds back the Mississippi River, a symbol of the river of tears people are working to hold back.

Yesterday, Friday, a day before the team from Bethlehem, my home church, was to arrive, we decided to drive east to see firsthand what the needs are beyond the Baton Rouge area. As we drove, first east and then south, and as the destruction increased, we came to a little church with its steeple blown off, tarps on its roofs, and its parsonage turned into a food and clothing distribution center. Having passed many churches, I, for some reason, chose to stop at this one. It was the first, and only, church we stopped at. We talked with pastors Sam and Tim, and although everything I saw in the office we were in was water damaged, they had “no needs”.

We asked them if they knew of any churches or towns that were being overlooked, that were off the beaten path that needed help. They told of a town just across the boarder into Mississippi. As this is a town that probably would not have a place for us to stay, we asked if we could use their church. They said yes. With now a second church base to use for the team, we took off for this unknown town in Mississippi called Pearl-something …a town just a few miles from the coast, on the Pearl River …a town the eye of the hurricane named Katrina passed over.

As we neared the town, we turned off the 4-lane onto a narrow two-lane road that wove through what was a forest and what is now something there is no name for. It’s whatever you call miles and miles of majestic trees shredded of their leaves and needles, limbs dangling, and trunks broken at all heights. The undergrowth has all died and has turned brown – killed by the salt water from the storm surge that flooded the area. The landscape makes one feel as if in a time warp – being transported from summer’s greens to early winter’s browns. As we make our way down the road where the fallen trees have been cut back just enough to make the road passable, Tom turns to me and says, “I think you found your back-in-the-woods, nobody’s-been-here place.”

As we near the town, God, as is typical with One who loves to work all things for good, does something “bad” – the car dies. I pull off the road in front of what looks like an old abandoned house that has just been through a hurricane and flood. We look around at where we are. It’s a haunting landscape. There doesn’t appear to be any life of any sort. There are some structures here, some of which were homes at one time. All abandoned. Nothing that looks like something one would want to live in.

I turn to Tom and say, “Of all the places to have one’s car die, I don’t think this is a good one.” We start to laugh. It’s surreal. We decide to do what anyone would do in this situation – we get out our cameras (see photo 3747).

Tom tells me to pop the hood. I don’t know how. I’ve only had the vehicle 3 weeks – never popped the hood. We look at the engine. Looks good to me – black and silver – no colors that don’t work with the overall color scheme. Tom taps on the battery. Says something about when this happens in Bolivia… I didn’t think we had driven that far.

I spot a blue tarp strung between two houses. I tell Tom, “We may not be alone.” It’s not long and I spot a shirtless man peering at us over a broken fence. Soon another man, missing quite a few key teeth comes over. We explain the situation. The other man comes over. They agree with Tom’s Bolivia theory. They say they have a generator. We take the battery out and hook it up to their generator.

They invite us “in”. “In” is under their blue tarp. They find some chairs and bring over a couple fans – a new experience. Sitting in the artificial breeze I declare, “I’ve never sat outside with a fan before!”

The shirtless man’s name is “Buzzy”. He’s a character. He offers us iced tea or beer. The beer sounds really good (it’s really hot and humid). I say the iced tea would be great. He scrounges around until he finds a couple of glasses, breaks open a bag of ice, and fills the glasses with the ice (with his bare hands which I wonder all kinds of things about).

The tooth-impaired guy’s name is Grady. He’s also a character, but clearly plays second fiddle to Buzzy. He lived in the house next to Buzzy’s, which Buzzy owns. It wasn’t much of a house before the storm. It is less so now. He joins us for tea.

This is surreal. We are sitting drinking tea under the shade of a blue tarp, cooled by the artificial breezes of two fans powered by a generator hooked to batteries, discussing life with two characters called Buzzy and Grady amidst the destroyed ruins of their homes in a literal sea of destruction that stretches as far as one can see (see photo 3718).

The sea that caused the destruction, the Gulf of Mexico, is actually miles away. The storm surge came up the river, the Pearl River, and flooded everything up to the roofs. Homes closer to the river had their 2nd floor walls blown out by the force of the storm surge. Everything the water touched is caked in now-dried tan mud.

As we sit and talk about life they point to a tree. It’s where Buzzy’s daughter and son-in-law swam when the house flooded. It’s where they shot two snakes and a crocodile trying to get into the tree with them. It’s where they clung for 8 hours.

Buzzy talks as if he has a new-found love for his wife. He doesn’t know why she stayed with him over all these years. He said he didn’t deserve her. He says she’s the most important person in his life. He’s sincere. It’s a different Buzzy than the Buzzy that’s a character.

He shows us a photo of his grandparents. There is nothing left to see. He then shows us how he saved the bulk of his photo collection – he had it on CD’s that he had wrapped in paper towels that he had put in zip-lock bags and then put into a tightly sealed cooler that floated in the waters. He is very proud that this worked.

Buzzy lets us look in his home. We don’t go in. We look from the doorway. Everything has a coating of slimy muck on it. The computer sits in the corner on a desk where it was left – never to boot again. The sofa and other furniture is still soggy. The walls have black mold growing on them. I can see why people in New Orleans were just leaving, not waiting for the waters to recede to salvage what they can. There’s not much to salvage.

After about 3 hours of talking about life and what is important and what is not, we decide we need to leave. We go to put the battery back in the car. Instead of installing mine, however, they take one of theirs, one that powers their only source of power – their generator. We put mine in the car as a back-up. They refuse to take any money for anything and throw the money I stuffed into Grady’s pocket back into the car. They who have lost everything are the givers. Humbling.

As we get into the vehicle, I turn to Tom and say, “Do you think the car dieing here is God’s way of saying come here?” Tom doesn’t have to think about it. He says a simple “Yes.”

We head over to the distribution center to see if they are in any need of help. I go in, and finding a white-haired bearded guy, who looks like he might be in charge, ask if they could use any help. He looks up at me with tired eyes in a drawn face on an exhausted body and asks sarcastically, “Do we need help?”

John, it turns out, is from Canada. This is not even his country. He, like I, early on got sick of watching it on TV, got in his car and came down on his own to help. He didn’t know where to go, he just came. He’s been working with little sleep ever since. He has many stories about the government’s help, about the Red Cross’s involvement, about volunteers, etc. He has been running the place since he showed up. He’s saddened that there has been so little help. We became instant friends.

He tells of how exhausted they are, but they can’t leave because there is no one to replace them. One woman was so exhausted her husband came and had her flown out. John sleeps in the distribution center. He can’t get away from it even to sleep.

I ask if they could use a team that could be here for a week. John’s eyes brighten. “That would be a Godsend. It would mean I could go home”. Another said, “Me too!”

As I walk back across the brown salt-water-killed grass to the car, I am overflowing with emotions. The need is so great. The help is so not here. The sense of God’s timing in this is so incredible. I get in the car and simply tell Tom, “This is where we’re supposed to come.”

We head back to Baton Rouge …or at least that is what we thought. God, it turns out, is putting in some overtime. The car dies. It dies somewhere before Covington. We pull over, change batteries, and take off again. A mile from Covington, the car dies again. We pull off the shoulder into the grass this time. This is as far as our batteries will get us. It’s exactly where God wants us.

As there are no motel rooms available for hundreds of miles and we know no one in this part of the state, I call Jerry, a new friend in Baton Rouge. He agrees to come pick us up. We’re an hour and a half away though.

As we begin our wait, a car pulls up behind us and stops. He’s getting off the road for a police car headed to the accident. I think, “Interesting timing …and a no-brainer.” It would be much easier for Jerry if we were in Covington. I go and ask if he could give us a ride. He says he’s only going to Covington. I say that’s where we’re going.

He drops us off at a chicken-something fast food. We walk up to the doors. They’re locked. We read the sign: “Closing at 8PM for curfew.”

It’s lightening out. We need to find a place to wait for Jerry where we can get out of the coming rain. We take off walking. We find a Baskin Robbins that stays open later. We go in and take a table.

As I head to the counter to order, a guy approaches me and says, “Hi!!!” He looks familiar but I can’t place him. I’ve never been to this town before in my life. Who is this? Another steps up and says, “Hi!!”. My mind is racing. They start explaining who they are. It clicks. These are the two guys (pastors) we met earlier that day at the little church we stopped at and who had recommended we go to Pearlington …and who said we could sleep in their church if we decided to work in Pearlington! Wow!!!

These two guys are the only two guys we have met today outside of people in Pearlington. What makes this so amazing is we are not even close to their church where we met them. We must be 30 miles the other direction. We must have driven 80 miles since meeting them. The chances of our running into them in a totally different city 30 miles from where we met, having each decided on ice cream at the same time, choosing the same ice cream place, are so profoundly low that only God could have orchestrated such.

For this to all happen, God had to work through the “bad”. There needed to be three perfectly timed car deaths for us to walk into an ice cream store in a town we never planned to stop in at the same time as two guys from a church 30 miles away walk in. To top it off, these guys offer, again, the church as a place to stay along with a car to drive there as they “happen” to have driven two cars here.

God, coordinating in Covington, for His purposes in Pearlington.

I call Jerry, who was now half way here, and tell him what God has orchestrated. I could “see” Jerry smiling and shaking his head. He knows this God. He has seen Him work before in both his own life and, these past days, in mine. He turns around and heads back to Baton Rouge.

Tom and I head over to this church I can’t recall the name of, in a town I don’t think exists. Tom got the one mattress they have. I said I would take the reclin-o-thing. I, again, don’t sleep long. There’s too much to process. There’s too much to write. I switch from reclin-o-bed to reclin-o-office. I hardly have to move.

That was yesterday. This is now Saturday and it is getting light outside. I stop writing and ease my way out of my reclin-o-office – it’s a little tippy when in the fully reclin-o position. I head outside.

For some reason, I decide to try the doors to the church. They are, surprisingly, open. I go inside. In the front of the sanctuary is a table with an open Bible on it. It is all I see. I walk to the front of the church to see what it is open to. It is open to Psalms. The last Psalm on the pages open is Psalms 29. I read it. I need read no more. It says it all.

The psalm speaks of the glory of God. It speaks of the glory of God not in the context of wondrous sunsets or majestic mountains but, rather, in the context of a destructive storm, with floods, where trees are broken, and stripped of their leaves. It’s describing an awesome hurricane with a storm surge that causes massive flooding along with winds that break and shred majestic trees to nothing. It’s describing Katrina.

And, it’s describing Pearlington – a flooded and mud-caked town with mangled trees and where people died. God’s conclusion? “… everything says, ‘Glory!’ ”

Hurricanes – declaring the glory of God?! Yes. (see photo 3794 – another hurricane (Rita) overspreading Louisiana)

And, just as God worked for our good and for His glory through what would seem to be “bad” – the car dieing 3 times – so He works through hurricanes. We may not be able to answer all the “why?” questions or define good as He defines good or see glory where He shows glory, but we can rest in the wondrous knowledge that in His perfect wisdom and unbounded love that He does work all things for our good and for His glory.

If one’s God is more awesome than the most awesome hurricane, than one’s God is truly awesome …which is glorious

God, Glory, and Hurricanes

Ascribe to the LORD, O sons of the mighty,
Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due to His name;
Worship the LORD in holy array.

The voice of the LORD is upon the waters;
The God of glory thunders,
The LORD is over many waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful,
The voice of the LORD is majestic.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;
Yes, the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
And Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the LORD hews out flames of fire.
The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness;
The LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD makes the deer to calve
And strips the forests bare;
And in His temple everything says, “Glory!”

The LORD sat as King at the flood;
Yes, the LORD sits as King forever.
The LORD will give strength to His people;
The LORD will bless His people with peace.

Psalms 29


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