By Mark H. Hunter, Regional Reporter
HAMMOND – Before Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast there were three small Baptist associations in the southeast part of Louisiana and now there is one, the Northshore Baptist Association.
“That was one of the many positive outcomes from that horrible time,” said Lonnie Wascom, Director of Missions for the 90-some church association headquartered in Hammond.
Wascom, like Ron Lambe, former administrative pastor at Istrouma Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, remembers Katrina in Dickensian terms, “the best of times and the worst of times.”
“The first week and a half was definitely the worst of times,” Wascom said during a recent phone interview.
Katrina’s winds and its colossal storm surge that rolled up to six miles into southeast Louisiana wiped out tens of thousands of homes and businesses, made many thousands of people homeless and wrecked most major infrastructure like power lines and highways. Parts of Interstate 10 were closed for months because bridges were destroyed.
“This may sound terrible but – the best of times was when the levees breached in New Orleans – because of that, all of a sudden, it got the attention of everyone – especially the Baptists,” Wascom said. “If it would have only been our local damage we would have had some help from area Baptists but we wouldn’t have had the national outpouring that came because of the levees breaching in New Orleans.”
Many of the association’s churches were shut down, he said, and those who had enough members left, who did not evacuate, worshipped outdoors.
“I can still see Waylon Bailey (First Baptist Covington) standing on a stump that first Sunday out in the parking lot because there was no power and their normal 2,000 crowd was about 300,” he said.
North Shore Church, a recent plant at that time, located in Slidell, had been meeting in a small shopping center, “and the storm raised the water in the drains revealing the construction had been short-changed and there was no outlet for underground drainage and lifted the 24 inch slabs like an earthquake,” Wascom said. Instead of 400 for the Sunday service they had 11.
Wascom was the first to drive his pickup into First Baptist of Slidell in knee deep floodwater and was looking for the association’s Disaster Relief trailer filled with tools and chainsaws. No phones or cell phones were working.
“I was worried about getting stuck because the mud was pretty deep and I don’t know what caused me to do it, but I looked up and there it was up in a tree!” Wascom said. “It had all the equipment in it – so it wasn’t light! The water came into Slidell with so much force it lifted it several feet up off the ground – I wish I had taken a photo of it!”
At Grace Memorial Baptist, near Interstate 10, he said he ran into a Disaster Relief unit from Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla., who was already on scene, five days after the storm, without even being asked to respond.
“That is the wonderful thing about Baptists,” Wascom said. “They told me ‘you guys helped us during (Hurricane) Ivan’ and they didn’t wait to be dispatched because they knew we needed their help.”
The value of cooperation
When Wascom was asked to name one lesson learned from Katrina he quickly replied, “the value of cooperation. When you look at the core values of local churches all the way down – notice I said down – to the Southern Baptist Convention – we’ve always talked about cooperation, given lip service to it sometimes – but Katrina taught me it is right up there with the values of biblical authority, prayer and missions.”
When we created the new association, we deliberately listed cooperation third below biblical authority and prayer as numbers one and two, Wascom said. “Our official watchword is prayer from I Timothy 2, but our unofficial watchword is ‘better together.’”
Zoar Baptist of Central and Istrouma Baptist of Baton Rouge, both large churches, sent relief teams as well as did many small membership churches, he said. “While some of our (destroyed and dispersed) churches were wandering around with that ‘deer in the headlights look’ there were other churches who just showed up and said ‘can we help you?’ You could see these bonds lock down.”
“Folsom churches found they needed help from Springfield churches, who were willing to help Mandeville, who wanted to help in Hammond and who helped over in Slidell, who helped up in Bush,” Wascom said.
Wascom compared the cooperation of Louisiana’s Baptist churches to the bonding soldiers often experience during the stress and distress of battle, he said.
“That is the best of times,” he said. “We are bound by geography, we are bound by culture, we are bound, most of all, by the gospel.”