The catastrophic flooding in south Louisiana is quite different for Southern Baptist chaplains in the National Guard than anything they have seen before and, at the same time, all too familiar.
Photo by Marilyn Stewart
National Guard chaplains meet with their colleague Thomas Fletcher, center, who also pastors flood-damaged Faith Baptist Church in Baker, La. From left are chaplain’s assistant Richard Watkins; Chaplain Major Page Brooks of the 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team; Fletcher; and Faith Baptist youth minister Matt Robertson.
Brigade Chaplain Page Brooks, a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) faculty member serving with Louisiana’s 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, said even though record rainfall and flooding didn’t come from a named storm, the devastation is much the same.
“This reminds me of other natural disasters, the sense of loss, of panic, and hurt that Louisianans have experienced before,” Brooks said. “There’s just such surprise.”
Upwards of 31 inches fell in a day’s time in the hardest-hit areas of Livingston Parish, according to an Aug. 16 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report.
Brooks said some evacuees reported rushing from their homes as water came in; others had less than three hours to prepare. Some lived in places that had never flooded before.
National Guard chaplains care for the caregivers, such as first responders who plucked people out of raging water and rescued people off rooftops. Of the chaplains led by Brooks from Jackson Barracks in New Orleans, one was not activated – Chaplain Thomas Fletcher, pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Baker and an NOBTS alumnus, whose home and church had flooded.
“It’s brutal. It’s absolutely devastating,” Fletcher recounted of the flooding that invaded the homes of about half of Faith Baptist’s church members.
Photo by Marilyn Stewart
Piles of debris from the flood-damaged parsonage at Faith Baptist Church in Baker, La., await removal.
Fletcher watched from the second story of the church educational building as the water rose inside the parsonage and the worship center before a boat dropped off a senior adult neighbor, a disabled woman from Brazil and her daughter at the church. Before the water crested, the group at the church had swelled to 10.
The last few years have been difficult for Faith Baptist materially and emotionally, Fletcher said, recounting that a financial crisis had drained the church’s resources, forcing them to forego flood insurance and put off needed structural changes.
“We were in a rebuilding process already,” Fletcher said.
With mounds of debris continuing to grow in front of each home on the street, Fletcher spoke in simple words of the magnitude of the task ahead.
“It’s a big problem,” the pastor said, requesting prayer. “We’ve got a big God.”
Weathering the storm
Chaplain Phil Smith, an NOBTS alumnus, made his rounds at an evacuee shelter at the River Center of Baton Rouge asking soldiers and airmen at work, “How are you doing?”
His job, Smith said, is to help servicemen and women remain resilient.
Using Scripture such as Jeremiah 31:3, Hebrews 13:5-6 and Romans 8:28, Smith reminded those in his charge that God loves them and keeps His promises, a truth that crosses all belief systems and denominations, particularly in crisis situations.
Smith pointed to hurts and disappointments in his own life that he didn’t understand at the time but God used later to bless him and to prepare him for his job as a chaplain.
“In my own life, when God took away good things, I found out He was making room for the best things,” Smith said.
Helping those caught in a crisis situation requires an approach tempered with wisdom and patience, chaplains report.
Rather than saying “it’s only things” or “at least you are safe” to those impacted by flooding or other disasters, Smith advised using questions such as “Is your spouse safe? Are your children safe?” to help victims keep things in perspective and find their way to hope.
Brooks cautioned that those in a crisis situation may “relive” past disasters or unresolved heartache may resurface when a new crisis arises.
“This may bring up past loss,” Brooks said. “People may cycle through grief and loss again, and they will need to be given the space and time to do that.”
Brooks praised the relief effort, noting that disaster relief operations have run smoothly and that communities, families and churches across Louisiana have come together to help.
“Everyone needs a sense of hope,” Brooks said. “This is where the church comes in with the gospel, with chaplains, with people caring for one another. The small acts of taking food or helping someone in their home, praying with someone, those small acts provide little glimpses of hope along the way in the process of recovery.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Marilyn Stewart is assistant director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.)