By Marilyn Stewart, Regional Reporter
Raw emotions bubbled to the surface as people struggled to process the losses brought about by Hurricane Katrina. As Southern Baptists faithfully offered care to those suffering from the storm, hearts warmed to the Gospel.
The power of relationship
When the local news warned that those remaining behind must write their social security numbers on their arms so bodies could be identified later, Kelli and George Esler knew it was time to leave.
The couple went to Grenada, Miss., where John and Candy Saxon, a couple who had befriended them the previous year, found them a place to stay. John was a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary student. Candy taught school in Chalmette with Kelli.
When the news of the devastation in Chalmette reached them, Kelli realized her perfect life was over.
“Living on the floor of some lady’s house, in a city I’d never heard of, in a state I’d never visited, that was the breaking point,” Kelli said. “I knew how out of control all of this was.”
Kelli saw how far downward they had fallen when her husband, George, a computer programmer, took a job sweeping the floor of a sawmill. As George worked alongside John at the mill, he came to faith in Christ.
The following Sunday, Kelli bowed her head and prayed, “I don’t know what this means, but I know I have no other option but to follow You.” When finished, Kelli said the world appeared more in focus. “The color was so much clearer to me,” Kelli said.
But the couple’s journey to faith had started long before the storm as their friendship with John and Candy bloomed. Kelli said her friends had faithfully shown her Jesus, though she didn’t realize it at the time.
“I recognized that there was something about them that was attractive, something that we wanted,” Kelli said. “Something I wanted.”
As the two couples spent time together, John brought up faith, salvation and the Bible. Through relationship, the hurdles that kept Kelli and George from the Lord were cleared away one-by-one, Kelly said.
Today, the couple is active at Westwego Baptist Church where Kelli is assistant to pastor Jay Adkins. Looking back, Kelli said she knows God was at work every step along the way.
“It is the power of relationship,” Kelli said. “They invested in us and got down to where we were and brought us to where they were.”
Jason Bezou decided God didn’t exist by the time he was 13 years old. As a mathematical, solutions-oriented person, Jason thought Christians “sounded crazy” when they talked about the Holy Spirit.
But the day before the Hurricane Katrina set its sights on New Orleans, Jason sat in a restaurant with Sara Blackwell, the woman who would later become his wife. When the conversation turned to their pasts, Jason said they drew a line and decided the past was over, never to be brought up again. Jason’s “drawn line” became a lesson in forgiveness. “That’s what Jesus does,” Sara explained.
But as Sara described the Holy Spirit as the guide who helps believers remain faithful, the moment became a “turning point,” Jason said. For the first time, he understood what Christians believe.
As a nurse at a Denhem Springs nursing home, Sara awaited patients and evacuees the next day, with Jason at her side. Though he had come to help others, he soon realized his own family was in danger. His grandmother had not left New Orleans and his father remained in Waveland, Miss., ground zero for the storm’s landfall along the Mississippi coast.
When all efforts to find Jason’s family members failed, Sara suggested they pray. Though he scoffed at first, Jason decided to give God a chance.
“Just for this moment, I’m going to believe,” Jason said.
As Jason prayed, everything they had discussed about God synced, Jason said. The comfort and reassurance he received as he prayed became the turning point that sealed his commitment to Christ, Jason said.
“In all of the moments leading up to the storm and in the aftermath, there was one thing that was certain. Jesus was with me,” Jason said. “I didn’t know he was there all the time, but I’m glad he waited for the right moment to reveal himself.”
Active at First New Orleans, Jason shares his testimony and the story of the rescue of his family members in his book, “Saved: One man’s salvation through Hurricane Katrina,” and through speaking engagements and his non-profit media producer, www.savedproducer.org.
Part of the family
Depression had been a part of Kathi King’s life for some time, but after losing her home in Hurricane Katrina, life became harder.
“Things started to fall apart,” Kathi said. “I went through the worst depression of my life. I didn’t want to live.”
Kathi said she and her husband “washed ashore in California” after the storm, returning to New Orleans 8 months later. For 4 years afterwards, the couple lived in an RV as they rebuilt their home next to the London Avenue canal, not far from where the levee broke.
The strain of rebuilding took its toll. One Sunday, Kathi felt compelled to walk into the service at Edgewater Baptist Church, a place she had never stepped into before.
A church member who recognized the look of someone struggling with depression, suggested to another member that Kathi needed a hug. That day, a bond formed, Kathi said.
“The church just took me in. They were God’s people taking care of me,” Kathi said.
Cole Gilbert, wife of pastor Chad Gilbert, took long walks with Kathi through the Gentilly neighborhood, talking about God and faith as they went. “She discipled me,” Kathi said.
Soon, Kathi began to realize that God had led her into the church that day for a reason.
“Before, I was kind of an agnostic,” Kathi said. “But, not anymore.”
Kathi prays for her husband’s salvation and prays that God will use her to reach others. When she looks at the difference in her life since the storm, Kathi adds, “Being part of God’s family is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Richard Scesny grew up in church, but left it all behind when he joined the U. S. Navy as a young man. For decades, he lived “as far from God as you can imagine,” Richard said.
As Hurricane Katrina barreled toward New Orleans, Richard, then 67, gathered up his mother, sister, nephew and his wife and their two young children, and left. With the cash savings he had at his house, Richard braved evacuation traffic, checking his family into a hotel in Beaumont 18 hours later.
As news reports over the next few days showed the deteriorating situation in New Orleans, Richard grew anxious. Fearful for the children, he prayed one evening, “Lord, we need some help.”
The following morning, the family drove to a restaurant for breakfast but drove off when they saw the line formed to the street. As they parked at a second restaurant, a woman pulled up behind them and asked if they were from New Orleans.
Beth Smith, wife of Robert Smith, pastor of Pinewood Baptist Church some 15 miles away, told Richard and his family that her church wanted to “adopt” a family from New Orleans.
Church members helped the Scesny family settle in a temporary home as they waited to return home to Marrero, on the west bank of the Mississippi River.
At prayer meeting days later, Richard knelt and committed his life to the Lord.
“I was all choked up and bawling like a baby,” Richard said. “It was happiness more than anything else.”
While in Pinewood, Hurricane Rita forced Richard and his family to evacuate once again. This time, Robert and Beth Smith took the Scesny family with them and headed north. When they returned to Pinewood weeks later, Richard and his family found that the house they had stayed in had been spared the damage others had suffered.
Back home in Marrero weeks later, Richard sought out a Southern Baptist church. As he drove, he passed Ames Boulevard Baptist Church and stopped. He told his mother later, “I’ve found the church for us.”
Baptized at Ames Boulevard three months after the storm, Richard remains a faithful member.