By Brian Blackwell, Message Staff Writer
VERMILION PARISH – The day following the landfall of Hurricane Rita, a bedridden Pres Riley fielded a call from a church member asking a common question of many affected by the historic storm.
“The water’s over my doorstep. What should I do?”
Riley, in the hospital after receiving several brown recluse spider bites, responded with advice to get out of her home and seek shelter at First Baptist Church in Abbeville where he served as pastor.
For a couple of weeks, Riley ministered from his hospital room to many others affected by the storm. While he was keeping in touch with his church members, those in the community and pastors offering prayers and support from throughout the US, First Abbeville was ministering by opening up its family life center to groups from all denominational lines which came to minister in a variety of ways to the community. The only states that did not send a team to stay at the church were Alaska and Maine.
With the exception of one week, the church’s family life center hosted groups for the next two years.
The church itself suffered roof damage but the groups coming in helped repair the damages.
Throughout this time, the congregation itself was struggling.
Riley said a good percentage of his members lost their homes or were in flood zones which made the cost to rebuild so costly that they moved elsewhere.
“When Rita hit, it was pretty devastating for many of our church members,” Riley said. “It was tough sledding for our church to lose a lot of our church members at the time. We visited people and tried to meet their needs in whatever way we could. “
First Abbeville was among many churches in Vermilion Parish affected by the storm, which caused a surge of up to 20 feet in some areas. No one in the parish died, though nearly 10,000 livestock perished.
Thurman Floyd rode out the storm in Carencro, about 70 miles northeast of Pecan Island. He has served as pastor of First Baptist Church Pecan Island for 14 years.
The church’s auditorium escaped major damage, though its front door and steps were destroyed. First Baptist Church in Kaplan allowed the church to worship in its facility until they repaired the damage a month later.
Floyd recalls the blessing of seven groups who helped restore the church. “They did a really good job,” Floyd said. “God spared our building when many of the houses around us were destroyed. This enabled us to be a witness to people around us.”
The congregation of First Baptist Church and the community of Erath coming together was a memory that stands out for Terry Gullick, a member there for 28 years.
Sixteen of the 30 families who attended the church were directly affected.
Gullick stayed with her mom at a home at Cotile Lake and a residence in West Monroe during the storm before returning to assess damage to the church and finding a note on the pulpit from the pastor, informing the congregation he had resigned. The church was undergoing a remodeling program when Rita came on shore, causing damage to the building from the storm’s floodwaters.
The church hosted teams from around the country and together they repaired the church. Gullick said they kept the table of remembrance that had watermarks of how high the waters came into the building. This is forever a reminder of the storm’s damage and the compassion from Christians thereafter.
Before the storm, they had a choir and choir director. Today, they have neither.
Still, despite the setbacks, Gullick said the church is hopeful they will grow once again.
“Our church is so special,” said Gullick. “It’s a lot like the early church. We all just love each other and stay in one accord. What we all need is that focused prayer. I know God is faithful and He proves it every day.”
For Esther Baptist Church, Rita blew out its windows and doors but didn’t knock the building off its foundation.
With so much attention on the city of New Orleans and other areas affected by Katrina, Pastor Wallace Primeaux said areas affected by Rita got little attention from the national media.
The members of the church and their neighbors in Esther came together and rebuilt. The congregation met in the activities building of First Abbeville until their structure was complete.
The congregation also received money from Evangeline Baptist Association and the Louisiana Baptist Convention, which helped pay for repairs and building a hill that the church structure was moved to in case future flooding occurred.
Primeaux said the congregation stayed together and was reminded to look to the Lord for their health and needs.
“We realized how much we need each other,” he said. “When you face disaster like that you realize how much you need your neighbor.”
Bert Langley, director of missions for Evangeline Baptist Association that includes Vermillion Parish, said the attitude shown by those churches and communities is reflective of the spirit of the Cajun culture.
“One thing about Cajun people, they’re resilient people,” he said. “Even though the storms were bad and severe, Cajuns just found a way to get back in there, rebuild life and keep at it.”