GULFPORT, Miss. (Christian Examiner) -- Shortly after 10 a.m. on a hot Sunday in August 2005, residents of the Mississippi Gulf Coast heard the familiar tone of the National Weather Service's radio warning.
"Devastating damage expected," the report said. Early the next morning, Aug. 29, Katrina made landfall as a category three hurricane.
"The devastation along the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina was staggering," David Johnson, assistant administrator for the National Weather Service, recalled.
"The physical destruction and personal suffering surmounted that of any U.S. weather disaster in recent history. The loss of life and extraordinary damage made Katrina the costliest hurricane in U.S. history and one of the five deadliest hurricanes to ever strike the U.S.," he said.
Katrina wrecked homes, cars, businesses and churches.
But for Chuck Register, executive leader of church planting and missions partnerships for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC), it affected more than material possessions.
"The storm changed my entire philosophy of ministry," he said.
WEATHERING THE STORM
Register was in his sixth year as senior pastor of First Baptist Church (FBC) in Gulfport, Mississippi., when Katrina struck. "We awakened on Sunday morning to discover [Katrina] had bloomed to a category five storm."
First Baptist Gulfport held an abbreviated worship service that morning as a "full evacuation order" went out. Only about 50 people, a fraction of the congregation, attended.
Wind gusts sailed past 100 miles per hour, according to reports. The wind was only half the danger for Gulfport residents. Those closest to the beach faced the greater threat of a storm surge.
"The elevation of FBC is 19 feet, and we sustained water the equivalent of a 32-foot storm surge," Register said. The storm devastated four of the church's seven buildings, and the remaining three structures were unusable. Eighty-five families in the congregation lost everything, he added.
Brian Upshaw was senior associate pastor at FBC. His main responsibilities were the administration, discipleship and education ministries. Today he is the disciple-making team leader for Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
After the brief Aug. 28 Sunday service, Upshaw made the church facility "as secure as we could make it," he said. He packed up the church's computer server, and along with his family, evacuated to Georgia to stay with his wife's family.
"The next day Chuck called and told me the facility was gone," Upshaw said. "Chuck saw it on TV. I had not seen it yet, but about 30 minutes later I saw it on the news. A news anchor was standing in front of what was left of our facility. That was my first sight of it."
Wednesday Upshaw drove back to Gulfport with a load of supplies including generators and fuel. As daylight broke Thursday, the recovery began. With the church directory in hand the staff began mapping the county and went to the homes of church members. "Those early days were very hectic and crazy, trying to determine what was going on," he added.
Insurance companies had to be contacted – for his family and for the church. Working without water and electricity, repairs faced him at every turn. Disaster relief organizations were not able to respond for at least five days. But as the weekend arrived, North Carolina Baptists on Mission (NCBM) and other relief agencies were figuring out how to get into Gulfport.
FBC began to implement a series of contingency plans, said Register, "for how we would do church without a facility." Providentially, at a retreat the previous April, church staff speculated on the question, "How would we do church if we didn't have a facility?"
The April retreat was "the hand of God on us," Upshaw said. "We did what we thought was an intellectual exercise on doing church without a facility. But much of the plan we were able to implement the first five days was a direct result of having those conversations in April. There is no way we could have predicted Katrina, but just the exercise of the staff working through a problem was really beneficial to us."
The first Sunday after the storm, they joined with two other Gulfport churches for worship. FBC, Crosspoint Church – a church plant from FBC – and First Presbyterian Church met in Crosspoint's facility. Gulfport High School allowed FBC to use its facilities to worship for the following three years.
In the early days the FBC ministers met at Register's house. "We would divvy up the city in sectors and assign those to a different staff member," he said. "My wife would have cooked supper for us on the camp stove outside. We would have supper, pray together and the next morning we would take care of those sectors of the city." They repeated the process daily.
"We did our disciple-making through home cell groups throughout the week," he explained. "For the next 18 months our days were consumed with pastoral care ... trying to help people put their lives back together in that environment."
"The body of Christ worked together better than at any moment in my 55-year history," Register said. "I had several meetings with North American Mission Board personnel and disaster relief teams," Register said, "to help them understand the need."
"The story of North Carolina Baptist Men (also known as Baptists on Mission) is the story of our recovery as a city," Upshaw added. "But the first responder I met was from Henderson Hills Baptist Church in Edmond, Okla. They sent some people down on their own. One of their pastors had seen us on the news and said, 'I need to go.' They came by themselves and partnered with us, and that became a critical church partnership over the next few months.
"Obviously the organized relief work and the mammoth undertaking that NCBM did for Gulfport – I can't say enough about ... those volunteers who really poured into us and ministered to us," he emphasized.
NCBM were the first feeding unit to arrive. They began what would become a two-and-a-half year ministry on the Gulf Coast that included more than 40,000 volunteers and more than 700 rebuilt homes.
Upshaw confessed he learned a lot about ministry fatigue. "The months went on, caring for our own church families' needs, serving the community, dealing with church administrative issues, trying to find a place to worship, dealing with the nuts and bolts of trying to get an office going, organizing small groups – it's incredible to think of all that goes into that."
Many of the church's senior adults were displaced.
"They lived in places they thought were safe and secure, but they lost everything. I'm talking about seniors in their 80s having to start over," he said.
No one in the church was killed from the direct action of the storm, but some died from related circumstances – many of them can be attributed to the trauma of Katrina, he added. The church held 26 funerals in the 12 months after Katrina.
Upshaw praised Register's leadership that kept the focus on the priorities. "I can't say enough about Chuck's leadership," Upshaw said. The preaching of the Word of God every Sunday, ... keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus in the midst of circumstances; trying to provide as much stability in church life as he could so that people whose lives were falling apart had something that was stable."
RECOVERY AND REGROWTH
Before Hurricane Katrina, worship attendance at FBC ranged from 750-800, according to Register. After the storm, the numbers sank to approximately 400.
More than 41,000 residents left the Gulfport-Biloxi area in the period between July 2005 and January 2006, according to a report by the Brookings Institution. Many never returned.
"The wave of migration out of Gulfport began with young adults," said Register, because they were the first ones released from jobs. "Then our senior adults began to leave town," he added. Needing to rebuild their homes, many senior adults decided to relocate near their families in other parts of the state or country.
After three years without a permanent facility, the church moved into a 58,000 square-foot building on more than 30 acres of land, according to Register. To make that transition, the church pooled resources from multiple channels.
In what Register describes as providential, the insurance committee of the church had reviewed its policies a year before the storm, adding a million dollars to the flood insurance plan.
Register also led the church in a capital campaign to raise money for the new facility. "Our folks really had a sense of stewardship, a sense of commitment to the Father and His Kingdom," he said. "I was very pleased with the way they responded to the Capital Stewardship Campaign at the same time they were trying to rebuild businesses that had been lost, rebuild homes that had been lost, deal with their own set of life crises. ... The Father was honored in that."
CHANGE IN MINISTRY PRIORITIES
As Register reflected on the effects the storm had on his ministry, he said, "My history had been pastoring churches that had grown significantly, had been recognized by the Billy Graham School at [The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary] for their growth ... so my ministry had become number-centric." He had also been a professor of evangelism at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Register described his ministry outlook: "We had to be larger this Sunday than we were Sunday a year ago."
"What the storm helped me to understand was that for a lot of my ministry I had not been focusing on truly making disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ," Register said. "I was focused on one half of the Great Commission – the evangelistic side of the coin – but had not focused on the disciple-making side of the coin."
Discipleship became a priority. "If it's not life-on-life transformation taking place," said Register, "we're missing this thing called disciple-making." The people in his congregation who were significantly involved in discipleship groups "really rose to the occasion following the storm in ministering to fellow believers, and in providing leadership to the body of Christ."
This prompted a significant shift in ministry philosophy for Register. "So many things that I thought were critical in ministry pre-storm," he said, "seemed to be really insignificant post-storm."
He developed "very little tolerance" for self-serving ministry. Register wanted to see outward focused ministry – among both clergy and congregation – that was directed toward "impacting our culture with the gospel."
A sense of urgency dominated him. Register said, "The storm taught me that whatever you're going to do for God's glory and for the Kingdom, you better do it now because you don't know what tomorrow is going to hold."
Upshaw learned some valuable lessons from the experience. One is that lay leadership is very valuable in church ministry.
The mobilization of people begins with "empowering the people at the closest level to the situation," he said. "Trust people that are closest to the situation to make the call ... those volunteers, the lineman from the power company or those disaster relief volunteers on the site – those are the people that made a difference by making good decisions based on the circumstances they were in."
Although he already valued the church's leaders, he said, "I grew in appreciation for the men and women in the church who have an expertise in a certain area – like insurance – and gave that expertise to the church," he said. "Because of their wisdom we had a good inventory of church property," and FBC had the insurance coverage they needed to rebuild.
However, the greatest lesson God taught him was "God is faithful. We know that. He proved that to us." He shared the words of the popular Matt Redman song, "Blessed be your name," that says, "You give and take away, my heart will choose to say, blessed be Your name."
"Every time I hear that song I think of Katrina. Because we were placed in a situation where we had to choose to praise the Lord for who He is and not for our circumstances. God is sovereign even in tragedy, we know He has not abandoned us, and He is still worthy of our worship."
-- Allan Blume is chief editor for the Biblical Recorder, and Seth Brown is content editor. This story appeared first online at BRNOW.org and is used with permission.