By Brian Blackwell, Message Staff Writer
JOHNSON BAYOU – Father’s Day has arrived and the congregation of Johnson Bayou Baptist Church has gathered for a special homecoming service.
Around 50 people, mostly current members of the church less than a mile from the Gulf Coast, are gathered at the original site of the church off Highway 82 in Cameron Parish to remember the past and celebrate the future.
The past is filled with memories of a church building severely damaged by Hurricane Rita and then completely destroyed by Hurricane Ike three years later.
The future is one of hope and plans to rebuild on the exact location where the two storms wreaked havoc on the church.
“I don’t understand why the Lord did all of that for that building and a few years later another storm came in a washed it away,” said former pastor Les Fogleman, who preached the homecoming message on June 21. “But I know one thing. He has an army. His army can come together and do mighty things.
That says they are not going to stop. They will keep on fighting. They have a community to reach. There’s no doubt they need to have a facility there.”
Fogleman was pastor of the congregation when the storm made landfall between Johnson Bayou and Sabine Pass on Sept. 24, 2005.
Fogleman had evacuated prior to the storm making landfall and was unsure of the condition of the church.
“One of deacons called and said it was bad,” said Fogleman, who already had planned to retire before the hurricane. “He thought I shouldn’t come back, that the church was destroyed. The Lord dealt with me and I couldn’t sleep.
“All I could think about was going back and fixing it,” he continued. “I had no idea what I was going to face. After I got there, the Lord confirmed quickly to me that I had to stay and rebuild that church.”
What Fogleman found was damage from 4-5 feet of floodwaters and a roof that was ripped apart. Months would pass before electricity would be restored.
However, instead of giving up, Fogleman grabbed a shovel, picked up a rake and got to work.
“It was just heart breaking to see what happened,” Fogleman said. “All the grass and weeds had washed in and were about three feet thick all through the church. It looked like someone had just tossed the pews in there where water was standing. So I just started dragging all the stuff out.”
Throughout the next five months, Fogleman lived in a donated camper on the church grounds and coordinated all of the renovations.
Groups from in Louisiana and outside the state began helping rebuild the church.
Every week, checks for various amounts came in the mail. They ranged from a small amount of money to $5,000.
“It was through the Louisiana Baptist Convention all these people from all over the country found out about us,” Fogleman said. “People would call and whoever they would talk to would say there is a lot of work going on in Johnson Bayou and they would then call me.
“It seemed like the right people would come at the right time,” he continued. “It was amazing how God coordinated all these people coming in and doing all this work. We had more money when it was over with than when it started. The only things we paid for out of our pocket was air conditioning and the floor.”
Though the sanctuary was severely damaged, Fogleman decided to hold Sunday morning services there in mid-October. Since all of the members had not returned to Johnson Bayou, the worshippers ranged from firemen to volunteers who were on site repairing the church. Those who worshipped in the sanctuary used 2 foot by 12 foot boards resting on 5-gallon buckets as makeshift pews.
Fogleman was unable to contact any of his church members for three weeks. Eventually he began hearing from them.
By Thanksgiving, the first group of his members returned to the church. They slowly trickled into Johnson Bayou throughout the next few months.
Life slowly was starting to return at Johnson Bayou.
Renovations to the sanctuary and some classrooms were complete by April 2006. All of the volunteers had now left, leaving church members to hold services once again inside the sanctuary.
Long-time church member Juanita Sandifer credits Fogleman as a key part of the church recovering.
“It was the sacrifice of Brother Les, living alone on the bayou without his wife or church family for many months, that enabled our church to survive this unprecedented event,” Sandifer said. “With every structure in the community in rebuilding mode, our church became the one place of solace for many. Most members returned and regular church activities including VBS and Christmas pageants continued. The community continued to work its way back to ‘normalcy`.”
Two years after Johnson Bayou Baptist Church was rebuilt, another tragedy struck the church and community. On Sept. 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall in Galveston, Texas, causing considerable damage to the community including destroying most of the town’s buildings. Among those was Johnson Bayou Baptist Church.
Even in the midst of the heartache, the parsonage was not destroyed during the storm. Services moved to the local community center, where they continue this day.
Today, the town is showing signs of rebirth.
Since Rita made landfall in 2005, the town’s elementary, junior high and senior high school – all meeting in one location – has a new building completed in time for this school year. The school is located next to the future sight of the Church.
“Most of the progress made after Rita was destroyed by Ike,” said Jack Gandy, pastor of Johnson Bayou since 2007. “The road to recovery has been much slower this time, with many people deciding to not return. However, those who stayed, and those who have moved here in the years following Ike, have clearly shown the need for a church in this community. Right now, our new facilities are a dream; but with prayer and persistence, that prayer will one day be transformed into reality.”
Church members like Sandifer are looking forward to the day when they can one day meet again at the location before the two hurricanes caused damage.
“Our small group of regular attendees — all life-long residents — are nearly all over 50,” Sandifer said. “We have maintained our faith that God still has a ministry for us.
“We long for the day we can hold Sunday school classes in more than one room, have VBS, choir specials and Christmas programs,” she said. “We miss the fellowship of past members and the Bayou as it used to be. We will continue to seek God’s will and reach out to our residents, weekend beach visitors and construction-work families.”