Area church group delivers relief

Editor's note: Daily Herald staff writer Michael Davis spent three days and two nights over the past weekend with missionaries from four area churches on a relief trip to the devastated Mississippi Gulf Coast. But, as it turned out, the supplies were needed most in Meridian, Miss., where a church-run resource center had run out of supplies.

Photos and Text By Michael Davis

Debbie Brown wasn't quite sure what to expect when she got to Mississippi.

She knew what Biloxi looked like. She knew she would be passing through on the trip.

She has a fondness for the city developed during her and her mother, Jackie's last years going on gambling trips there, playing the "one-armed bandits" as she calls them.

"I've just got myself ready to see about anything," the Stockbridge resident and Marriott hotel employee said.

Brown, and a handful of members from her church, Living Way Church, of Stockbridge, were part of a caravan of the faithful trekking to Pass Christian, Miss., on the Gulf Coast, in a relief effort. A twisted McDonald's sign seen from the interstate in Biloxi was a preview of what she would see later last Friday.

A month after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region, the tiny town of Pass Christian, a town of about 6,000 people, remains in shambles, the missionaries are told. When they got there, they found that what they were told was right.

The caravan includes members from four Clayton and Henry-area churches, followed by a tractor-trailer load of supplies for the people of the town. The missionaries came from Living Way, Strong Tower Church of God in Jonesboro, Southside Christian Fellowship in McDonough, and a contingent from New Covenant Church of God in McDonough that included the family of Henry County Commissioner Elizabeth "BJ" Mathis - in all, about 30 missionaries and three reporters.

"We all worked together in outreach, so it was a natural thing to come together," Mathis said after arriving home Sunday.

The people from Living Way included several well-traveled missionaries. One 17-year-old, Faith Academy senior Jessica Hart, has been overseas on mission trips to at least five different countries, and has plans to leave for India in February.

Living Way's driver, a feisty and forthright Jackie Allums, 63, is an experienced missionary herself. As is her daughter Kelly Allums, 38, who will accompany Jessica to India and is a youth leader at Strong Tower.

Kelly Allums says she was the first woman to preach in Calcutta, India.

Jackie Allums' long-time friend Bonnie Stewart, 62, went to Jerusalem last year.

Challenges along the way

Out of the gate, the trip was plagued with glitches. The plan had shifted from making a stop in Meridian, Miss.,to going directly to Pass Christian, one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina.

Before leaving the metro Atlanta area, a tire on the tractor trailer had to be replaced, and a transmission problem with one passenger van led to a 1 1/2-hour hold up along Intestate 59 in south Mississippi as the group left Pearlington, Miss. for Meridian Saturday.

Saturday evening, as the churches unloaded supplies at the Agape Fellowship in Meridian, a youth group member playing football on the church's lawn injured his wrist and had to be taken to the emergency room there.

"And no, it didn't go the way it was planned, but in the end the plan worked," said Jackie Allums. "We're not perfect, we're just forgiven," she said.

Missionaries, who had planned to drop the trailer full of shampoo, cereal, cases of evaporated milk and other supplies in Pass Christian, weren't disappointed when their intentions were seemingly routed by fate, and the supplies wound up in Meridian, 170 miles north. Some said it was all the more powerful because they had seen the area, and the people, that had been rocked by the hurricane. They believed it was God's will.

"This stuff that we've got is going to be used by these people," said Dan Atkinson, the pastor of Strong Tower.

Destruction lingers

Pass Christian is a coastal town with antebellum homes and all the modern conveniences. A Wal-Mart, now destroyed by the hurricane, fronts on E. Beach Boulevard, or Highway 90. Just west, across the St. Louis Bay, is the town of Bay St. Louis, and west of that, Waveland and Pearlington.

Highway 90, and Interstate 10 connect them. Through Pass Christian, where Highway 90 runs along the waterfront, two and sometimes three of its four lanes lay in rubble, washed up by storm surge. Two rows of concertina wire lay along side the railroad tracks that run parallel to the beach two blocks north, an apparent effort to keep passersby from the most devastated area of the city.

There, few buildings remain. One home, built of concrete slabs on concrete stilts, rises among the rubble of hotels, homes, and businesses. Oddities like a treadmill and a toilet lay seemingly undisturbed on concrete slabs amid sticks, sand, mud and crumbled concrete.

"I feel like I'm in a different country," said Hart. She was riding in the back of a pickup with other members of her church to survey the destruction and try to find the town's police station, where they expected to drop off the payload of supplies. "This doesn't feel like [America]," she said. The effort to leave the supplies in Pass Christian ultimately proved fruitless.

Bay St. Louis

The group spent the first night in Bay St. Louis, where a rag-tag group of other missionaries, mainly from the Midwest, had set up shop in a home across the street from a Catholic seminary-turned-retirement home inhabited by priests. The home belonged to the secretary of one of the retired priests. They had helped her and her brother clean up their parents' home, and she donated hers to them. She wouldn't be back for months.

"It's like home," said Rick Walth, a pastor at Daily Life Ministries in Doon, Iowa who was the unofficial spokesman for the group. "It is home," he said.

The pink and white walls showed signs of mold growth, and a water mark was evidence the one-story, three-bedroom brick house had once held 5 1/2 feet of water. Sheet rock had been pulled from the master bedroom and sunken living area, all of the carpet had been torn up.

Many of the Clayton-Henry group, mostly the youth, slept on the floor in one room. Others spent the first night outside in the vans. Some slept in sleeping bags on the lawn of the seminary only to wake up covered in early morning dew.

Pearlington: more of the same

The difference between Bay St. Louis and Pearlington is negligible. More homes there are destroyed, trees are toppled. Cars are overturned in ditches, and stacked on top of each other, along Highway 90.

"I spent '69 in Vietnam and it looks just like the place was hit with napalm," said Strong Tower's Atkinson.

Pearlington resident George Ladner was hauling the guts of his home to the road in a wheel barrow Saturday. He said he has to rebuild, but for now, he stays in a FEMA-supplied camper in his own backyard.

"That's my life savings there," he said, pointing to his brick house that lay in shambles on 1st Street.

In this town, FEMA has set up a service center to help residents that either never left, or came back after the hurricane to find their home gone or uninhabitable. Frank Cloud and his wife Sheila spent the 24 hours after the hurricane in their attic with 10 dogs in Pearlington.

They come to the relief center, set up on the football field and in the gymnasium of Charles B. Murphy Elementary School, to meet people, and maybe find supplies that weren't there the day before.

"Unfortunately, we made the decision and rode it out," Frank Cloud said. They were to celebrate their 20th anniversary the weekend Katrina hit. Now Sheila, who worked at a casino, is about to take a job out of state, leaving behind her husband, who does painting and remodeling work.

"We're getting separated by the storm," said Sheila Cloud.

Need still great in Mississippi

In Meridian, where the missionaries and their payload eventually landed Saturday evening after a scrapped plan to supply the FEMA center in Pearlington, a church acting as a service center had run out of supplies. Only a few bottles of juice remained, said Agape Fellowship Senior Pastor Gary Bickford.

He said since the evacuation, exactly a month before, they have served about 1,500 families with an estimated $60,000 in supplies. He said the new delivery means "we can help more people -it means we can minister to more people."

The supplies, which filled up at least three rooms outside the church's sanctuary and took about two hours to unload, will last about a week, maybe 10 days, the missionaries were told.

"It's crossing all kinds of boundaries," said Bickford, 56, of his group's relief efforts. It's crossing "racial boundaries, denominational boundaries," he said.

Oretha Amerson lives behind the church, and every day since the hurricane and influx of evacuees, she's helped bundle supplies to give away. She says God tells her to do it.

"When He wakes me up and touches me, He tells me what he wants me to do that day," said Amerson, 72, a retired truck driver. "And I don't worry about nothing else but what He tells me."