Pastors seek divine meaning in the wake of Gulf tragedy

Churches reach out to victims in the South with money, clothes and housing.
Monday, September 5, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:32 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Although his sermon for Labor Day weekend was supposed to focus on work, Keith Simon of The Crossing knew he had a more important message to deliver on Sunday.

“We needed to switch course to help all of us think about this biblically,” Simon said of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. With a sermon that featured a slide show of disaster photos and headlines, Simon said suffering and evil should not undermine faith.

“We can’t hope for a life without pain and sadness,” he told his congregation in the Rock Bridge High School auditorium. “Sometimes the work of God is to show us desolation.”

Like Simon, pastors across Columbia delivered messages of both hope and despair on Sunday, encouraging members to take important lessons from the hurricane and do whatever they can to help those in need. And parishioners responded, many opening their wallets, writing checks or providing housing or other assistance to refugees trickling into the city.

At The Crossing, Simon said tragedy reveals human frailty and strips away the illusion of immortality. He said many people invest too much in physical security while forgetting the importance of spiritual investments to which they can turn in times of trouble.

“God sends us private or national tragedies to wake us up,” Simon said.

At the Second Baptist Church downtown, the Rev. Clyde Ruffin told the assembly that it should share its resources with hurricane victims.

“If this was brought about by sin, then what makes us so privileged?” Ruffin said. “Treat others like we want to be treated.”

The Rev. John Baker at the First Baptist Church on West Broadway said the poor in New Orleans “have the least and lost the most.”

“I watch the news and the searing images on TV, and all kinds of feelings and emotions overwhelm me,” Baker said.

He defined love as choosing to do good for others.

“Go beyond being an observer,” he said, urging members to donate to the relief effort and to support evacuees.

One of those evacuees is Eula Hickman of New Orleans. She and dozens of others displaced by the hurricane are taking shelter at Calvary Baptist Church, where they joined the congregation for services yesterday and listened as the Rev. Brian Evans credited the hand of God for saving so many people.

“Katrina means pure,” Evans said. “I wonder if God is trying to purify his people. One of the ways God purifies his people is by putting his people through tough times.”

Evans’ message resonated with his visitors from the South.

“I loved the things he said about coming together as one,” Hickman said. “There’s a reason everything happens, and this was to bring people closer together.”

At Centerpoint Church in north Columbia, the Rev. Doug Phillips struggled to describe Katrina’s impact. A former resident of Buras, La., south of New Orleans, Phillips spoke of friends who still live there and said the home where he once lived is covered by 18 feet of water. The only sign of his town, he said, are the lights over the high school football field.

“We have to ask ourselves: How do we help? What do we do?” Phillips said.

Phillips held up church member Dayna McVeigh as an example. Her sister, Darla Mansfield of Slidell, La., lost everything in the hurricane. Mansfield, her husband, John, and their two children have been living with McVeigh.

The church has become a source of support for the Mans- fields. Members have donated so much clothing that the family can’t take any more. After Phillips’ sermon, a church member promised a rental property to the Mansfields, while another offered to pay three months’ rent. Parishioners also are cooking for the family and have created an account at First National Bank to accept donations on their behalf. John Mansfield has already landed a job, and their children are enrolled in school.

During a special offering for hurricane relief, Centerpoint parishioners donated $2,587.

Across town at Community United Methodist Church, the Rev. Gary DeWitt urged followers to consider housing refugees and to give money to the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

Ava Swofford of the church missions committee said giving hygiene or cleanup kits to the Committee on Relief would also help.

“I want people to open up their hearts, put themselves in the other people’s shoes and ask what would you want someone to do for you,” Swofford said.

Missourian reporters Ashley Trent, Sheena Martin, Jessica Bassett and John Parks contributed to this report.

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