HOUMA, La. — “Pull on up, pull on up!” Larry Crump says in a shout that is softened by a welcoming smile.
“They’ll get your food right here!” he says as the car slows and the driver rolls down the window.
“How many lunches you need?” asks Hoss Dixon.
“Can I get six?” the man says hesitantly. “Six it is,” Dixon says, almost instantly handing the man six Styrofoam containers as other volunteers move food up to the serving line.
With other volunteers, Crump has come here from West Albemarle Baptist Church in Albemarle. Dixon is from Pine Grove Baptist Church, Rockingham.
“Can we get two plates to warm up later?” a woman asks. “Sure,” Crump answers, “but come back if you can because we’ll fix dinner tonight too!”
And it goes like that for hours on Sept. 7, as the 62-member N.C. Baptists on Mission team cranks up its Manna One feeding station almost to capacity, handing out some 23,000 meals a day at Houma’s downtown Civic Center. The city, population around 32,000 and about an hour’s drive southwest of New Orleans, was hit heavily by Hurricane Gustav.
This is bayou country, low country spread among inlets, streams and swamps and, one can imagine, a nice place to live most of the time.
But electricity was out and almost all restaurants and grocery stores were closed; police and National Guard troops were on patrol. The city’s downtown streets were littered with broken tree limbs and shattered glass.
Thousands of residents had fled inland and were just returning to see what had happened to their homes, businesses and lives. A block from the Civic Center a once-nice house was partly crushed by several pine trees that had snapped and fallen on it.
On Sunday, residents drove through a gate at the Civic Center, stopping first to get water and tarps from National Guardsmen, then driving by the white Baptist tents to pick up lunch.
Today, that included a pork chop, green beans, chunky fruit salad, bread and two chocolate chip cookies.
Disasters are no respecter of persons: Vehicles coming through the food line included gasping jalopies barely able to go, as well as nice SUVs whose drivers are surely not accustomed to asking for free food.
“God bless you,” the volunteers said to one and all and heard many forms of “thank yous” and “bless yous” as people took the food.
“There’s a lot of stress,” said Bill Fogarty, who wore chaplain’s tags along with the standard issue yellow cap. “Some are glad to get back but some are just completely overwhelmed,” he said. “I talk to them, pray with them, share with them why we’re here, try to encourage them and lift their spirits,” he added.
Fogarty is pastor of First Baptist Church, Weddington, near Charlotte, but also serves as chaplain for police officers and federal agents.
One woman, who had two infants in the back seat of her car, took the lunch containers but then stopped her car and wept uncontrollably. Volunteers called Fogarty who went over to talk and pray with her. “I don’t know if I can do this,” she told him.
Fogarty’s church has trained volunteers who have served in such relief operations but this time he drove down by himself so he could help out. He first heard about chaplaincy work with N.C. Baptist Men from a postcard the organization sent out.
When he looked into what Baptists on Mission are doing, he said, “I was just blown away. I had no idea we had such a big operation as this.” He offered his help and later got his church involved.
Seeing how people respond to the ministry is a huge payoff, said Steven Stancil. He’s the “white cap,” in Baptist Men parlance. He’s coordinating the project, taking time off from the two pizza restaurants he operates in Rocky Mount to come down with some other volunteers from Forest Hills Baptist Church, Wilson.
Stancil was shifting volunteers around so more of them would get a chance to see the people getting the food. He keeps in mind that people are the focus of the ministry, not just handing out pork chop lunches.
“We’re showing God’s light to a lot of people who are hurting. We’re able to look into their eyes and see their expressions. We ask how they’re doing, how their houses fared during the storm. We just show how we care and they open up to us. We’re planting a lot of seeds today (for the gospel),” Stancil said.
Baptists from many other states have sent teams to this stricken area. Particularly poignant for N.C. Baptists: More than 30 volunteers came from First Baptist Church, Gulfport, Miss., the city where 34,000 N.C. Baptists worked to construct 715 houses after Hurricane Katrina.