Thursday, February 15, 2007
We needed to see...we needed to be there
I knew that George Bates was a true Mississippi ‘character’ from the moment I laid eyes on him. My friend Frank Brooks of Corinth had warned me not to think of visiting our Presbyterian Katrina Relief Ministry at Gulfport without going by and speaking to George. And so I made this a top priority when Ki Jones, Mark Miller, and I made a quick run to Handsboro, Miss., to deliver 80 frozen casseroles baked by the Presbyterian Women at Tupelo which were used to feed the volunteers still working down on the coast.
Volunteers still working down on the coast? You bet! People came from all over the country when the hurricane first hit over one year ago. The winds had hardly died down before our good Baptist friends were out there with their chain saws and bull dozers. They are the “first-responders.” We Presbyterians — slower to get organized — like to go a bit later, but we stay for the long haul. The Lutherans and Methodists are the same way. There has been a lot of cooperative effort down on the coast.
In fact, the little headquarters of the Presbyterian relief effort is a testimonial to that. It is in the little Sunday school building of the Handsboro Presbyterian Church. With so much destroyed, the little Handsboro church, which dates from 1891, is now one of the oldest and most beautiful landmarks left on the coast. Located on Pass Road, it is several blocks inland from the beach, which is what saved it. For years people have stopped and admired the little Handsboro church, with its massive live oak tree in front.
The glass in the church’s windows is so old that you can see the waviness of the old glass. (Some of those panes survived.) The railroad stopped much of the flood water, and George Bates explained to us that Pass Road which runs east and west several blocks north of and parallel to Highway 90, was built on a ridge of higher land. So the church was in a good position to survive. Only the top of its steeple was damaged.
But the little church is serving as far more than a beauty spot for tourists or even as an icon of survival from an era before the storm. Now its Sunday school building is used all day every day as the coordinating center for a massive relief effort that has involved more than 8,000 Presbyterian volunteers and who knows how many from other denominations or no denomination at all.
But the little church has another duty, and here the symbolism is beautiful from the heart. Close neighbor St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, or “St. Peter’s by the Sea” as the congregation likes to call itself, evoking the New Testament imagery of its patron saint, was dreadfully damaged by Katrina. And so arrangements were quickly made for Handsboro Presbyterian and St. Peter’s Episcopal to share worship space in the old Handsboro church. A beautiful little sign out front says “By the generosity of the Handsboro Presbyterian Church, this is also the place of worship for St. Peter’s by the Sea.”
The Episcopal congregation believes it can rebuild its beautiful church, but the two churches have agreed to continue their joint service in other ways even if they no longer worship in the same space.
Meanwhile, a wonderful, Episcopal-looking altar now stands in the Presbyterian sanctuary, and the Episcopalians are making do, singing from the Presbyterian Hymnal. The Episcopalians are having to stand for prayer, as there is no room for kneeling shelves in the hand-carved pews, just as there is no rail around the altar for the traditional Episcopal custom of receiving the holy communion on their knees. Still, a pair of large free-standing candles recently added at the altar lend a “high-church” touch to an otherwise simple Presbyterian sanctuary, and it is clear that the two congregations have learned more than niceties of liturgical etiquette from their cohabitation with each other.
Little Handsboro Church is headquarters for the largest Presbyterian relief effort our communion has ever undertaken, and we are told by our friend George that the effort will go on for two more years at least. Just ride around and you will see how much work there is left to do!
George, by the way, has recently retired from his career as a teacher. Left with some free time, he and his wife volunteered to work with the relief effort and came over to Gulfport to set up their temporary residence right after the storm was over. They’ve been on duty ever since. George is from an old Natchez family, and his grandparents hail from the Dancys of Holly Springs. So you see, there are old, old Mississippi connections, and I could see the dedication to home, family, and church — what Eudora Welty calls, “a sense of place,” as soon as George walked into the crowded Handsboro church fellowship hall to greet us and begin our tour.
Now, I am quite sure that if an efficiency expert were consulted, FedEx, or UPS, or a smaller number of drivers could have sufficed to get those casseroles cooked by the Tupelo ladies down there to the coast. The time, attention and concerted effort of a lawyer, a merchant, and a minister weren’t really needed. In fact, somebody could have just written a check, and the Gulfport edition of Kroger, Costco or Sam’s Club could likely have filled the bill. Those volunteers certainly appreciated, but did not have to have the delicate seasonings and creative decoration of “home-baked.” Stouffers would have sufficed.
But that is not why the Lord put it on those ladies’ hearts to cook, or on our hearts to make this trip to deliver their delicious individually prepared casseroles, many of them derived from old family recipes. We needed to enter into God’s concern by turning our hands and driving this car all the way down through New Albany and Tupelo, Shannon and Macon, Shuqualak and Enterprise, on to Laurel, Ellisville and Maxie, then Wiggins, Saucier, and Lyman…town after town, mile after mile.
We needed to see the downed pine trees begin appearing just below Meridian. We needed to see the roofless barns out from Hattiesburg. We needed to see the FEMA trailers at Saucier and the rows and rows of manufactured housing for sale at trailer emporiums that occupy great asphalt lots at Lyman where before you might have shopped for old, B-grade used cars. We needed to drive along Highway 90 and, where there used to be all those lovely old mansions looking out over the sea, see for ourselves only blocks and blocks of concrete slabs, scraped empty for as far as the eye can scan.
But we also needed to see George Bates, presiding over it all. Making it look as if it were all in a day’s work. Serene, confident, eager to tell us about all the people who have come and served, all the good that he has seen in the human spirit as a result of this dreadful calamity. Not many of us get to live out our faith in such a fully-engaged manner. I am sure that George had no idea that when he “retired” something this momentous would be waiting just for him. It was good — just for a day — to enter into George’s world. I know I won’t ever be the same for having been there.
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