By Brian Blackwell, Message Staff Writer
CAMERON – First Baptist Church in Cameron is like the town – badly damaged by past hurricanes but always coming back to survive.
Hurricane Audrey nearly destroyed the town in 1957 and almost 50 years later, Hurricane Rita tried to do the same to the community that sits alongside the Gulf of Mexico.
Among the last to leave during Rita were Paul and Cyndi Sellers. Paul was on duty as a sheriff’s deputy and Cyndi was capturing the final moments of reporting for a newspaper.
The Sellers managed to escape and rode out the storm from their son’s home in Denham Springs. They returned to find their home, community and church nearly gone.
Instead of choosing to count their losses and close, the Sellers believed God wanted to continue the work of First Baptist Church in the community.
“Paul and I always thought from the beginning that God wanted a church in Cameron,” said Cyndi Sellers, who also serves as the church treasurer. “Some people said to tear down the building and merge with another church in the parish. We said we are the parish seat and we need a church here. God continued to remind us that we were making the right decision by the way people kept showing up to help us build.”
Though the Sellers knew this was the right decision, the path to their first service back in March 2006 wasn’t an easy one.
The church sanctuary was badly damaged and had to be torn down, as did the parsonage. The remaining structures, built as separate rate units, were only about 35 percent damaged and could have been remodeled without elevating, which would have been cost prohibitive. The roofs were intact and the walls were structurally sound.
An architect from Sulphur designed the renovation, converting the old gym into a new sanctuary. The baptistery stained glass window was salvaged to place in the new sanctuary.
Whenever they needed assistance, groups would show up to help. A church from Kentucky donated furniture, hymnals and pews. A church from Kansas donated $25,000. Another church from Washington brought a large white tent that the church used for its services until the building was remodeled.
The Louisiana Baptist Convention sent $50,000 to help pay for new air conditioning units.
“It came in small and large chunks,” Cyndi Sellers said. “It was God moving in a way you could only see through disasters like that.”
Today, the community has not rebounded to its pre-Rita population, thanks in part to Hurricane Ike damaging the town again in 2008. Approximately 550 people live there today, compared to 2000 in 2004.
The church itself, however, is recovering. One year after Rita, First Cameron ran 20 on Sunday morning. Now, they average 50, though earlier in the year during their 75th anniversary celebration they drew 110. Baptisms – 25 since January – are on a record pace.
To disciple the new Christians, the church plans to reintroduce Sunday school, something they have not had since September 2005.
“This is a big step for us to put in a full Sunday school,” Cyndi Sellers said. “Most of our trained teachers moved away after Rita and many current members are new Christians who still need to be in a class.
Other hopeful signs are community outreach efforts that have begun, such as fall and summer festivals, movie nights, and 45 children attending the first Vacation Bible School completely managed by the church instead of help from outside groups.
“We don’t know what future God has planned for Cameron and First Baptist Church, but we are ready to face that future and do whatever He wants us to do,” Cyndi Sellers said. “By next year we may have 1,500 construction workers building an LNG plant here. We are ready to minister to them and to all who make Cameron their home.”