By Mark H. Hunter, Regional Reporter
BATON ROUGE – When Ron Lambe, now-retired administrative pastor of Istrouma Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, recalls Hurricane Katrina he can’t help but quote Charles Dickens, “it was the best of times and the worst of times.”
“It was the worst of times due to how grossly ill-prepared our entire state government, the Red Cross, our church and even our nation was for a natural disaster of this proportion and the grueling 16 hour days our staff and volunteers put in each day,” Lambe recalled. “It was the best of times because it allowed our church members to learn quickly to love those who are less fortunate than us and to demonstrate true sacrificial love to those displaced by the floods.”
Istrouma is the largest SBC/LBC church in Baton Rouge and had previously made an agreement with the Red Cross to be a shelter the year before Katrina made landfall. A small group of Loyola University students evacuating from New Orleans after summer sessions were the first to “camp out” in the church’s Bain Building, a two-story building of classrooms centered around a gym.
Then the flood hit, New Orleans nearly emptied out and more than 600 distressed people ended up sleeping on cots and the gym floor and overflowing the restrooms. The Red Cross had only a husband-wife team on site, Lambe recalls, and military MRE’s, (meals ready to eat) were not delivered for a day later, so church members provided as much food as possible.
“Serving food within the shelter and delivering food to those housed by Red Cross in surrounding hotels would continue throughout the ordeal, three times a day,” Lambe said. As responders got their act together and police and military tightened control, some “bad apples” were eliminated from the crowd and order was maintained.
Soon, semi-trucks from across America, filled with food, clothing and essentials like toilet paper, bedding and shoes began arriving on campus and church volunteers filled an entire other Sunday School classroom building with supplies that were eventually distributed across the Metro area to other shelters and churches.
“The lessons learned from our Katrina experience are innumerable, but perhaps the most beneficial was the incredible resiliency of people; both our members and those who came to us needing shelter and substance,” Lambe said. “Watching both sets of folk merge into functioning and accomplishing groups made me appreciate the survival instinct of mankind and the Christian influence of our society.”
The church learned some lessons about being prepared, Lambe said, especially by being willing to respond quickly to events. He also noted that the “ordeal” divided the congregation.
“About half our regular attenders attempted to help however they could, others not wanting any part of it,” Lambe said.
After about eight weeks, the evacuees dispersed and church staffers discovered the Bain building required many thousands of dollars and several month’s worth of renovation and repair.
Katrina did, however, build a spiritual bridge between the mostly white Istrouma congregation and the Fred Luter’s predominantly African-American congregation of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church.
For more than a year Luter, or one of his pastors, and about 200 members worshipped each Sunday afternoon in Istrouma’s main sanctuary. Many of those members stayed in Baton Rouge and now meet each Sunday morning at Florida Boulevard Baptist Church.
“Many of the shelter occupants attended our services each week and some were saved and joined our church,” Lambe said.
“Overall the experience was one of the grandest responses by our people in all her history,” Lambe said. “I would not be hesitant to recommend we serve in this capacity again if needed.”