Wednesday, August 29, 2007

2nd Katrina Anniversary

It's been 2 years since Hurricane Katrina changed the lives of many people in the gulf coast. I had the chance of going to New Orleans this past week with a team from Somebody Cares to visit a few ministries and churches we've been supporting through hurricane relief. It was an awesome time, and it was such a blessing to be able to encourage those still serving on the "front lines" in New Orleans and Mississippi. They're still rebuilindg...still bringing hope to their communities (There is still alot of work to do). They are true hereos of compassion... in it for the long haul. It was a honor to meet them. The following is part of an aritcle about the trip and the continuing relief work in New Orleans and Mississippi:

August 29, 2007
By Belinda Thacker, Somebody Cares America
When I had the chance to travel back to New Orleans with Doug Stringer and a team from Somebody Cares America, I jumped at the chance," says Mark Roye from BloodNFire/Somebody Cares San Antonio. "Somebody Cares America was and is such a huge blessing to so many people and ministries, still reaching out and giving a hand to those in need."

Mark joined Doug Stringer and a team of four other representatives from Somebody Cares Houston and Somebody Cares America who were sent to New Orleans and two Mississippi locations-Picayune and Pearlington-last week to visit some of the front-line ministries we have supported with funds, teams, and directing supplies and donations.

There's no doubt that the images captured by the media two years ago-and by the personal experiences of people like Mark and others who were first responders to the tragedy-were permanently embedded into our thoughts and our minds as Hurricane Katrina changed the physical and cultural landscape of our nation.

"As we landed at the New Orleans airport, my mind began to race with memories of what took place almost two years ago. I thought of coming to that city just eight days after the disaster of Katrina had taken place. Memories of the smell of death and sights of destruction raced back in my mind's eye.

But now, two years later, what are the long-term affects of Katrina, and what is still left to be done?

Earlier this year, a church in Houston who has partnererd us throughout the years was no longer involved in Katrina relief, so they generously entrusted Somebody Cares America with a very significant donation that had been given to them, designated for relief. The Somebody Cares team visited some sites that had already received aid from that donation, and we were able to disburse donations during the visit to new sites as well.

Resurrection Life/Somebody Cares Picayune
"Literally, thousands of people have heard about Jesus because of our relationship with this man and his ministry." Pastor Allen Hickman was introducing Doug Stringer as the guest speaker...
When Katrina hit the Mississippi coast, many people fled north to the small town of Picayune. Ironically, the name Picayune means "small and insignifcant," but to the thousands in need, it was immensely significant! Out of their own need, the RLM church began relief operations from their parking lot. Somebody Cares was one of the first organizations to direct trucks and food to their location. "In the first 2 ½ weeks, over 23,000 cars came through the church parking lot and we were able to help 100,000 people," says Richard Hinojosa, associate pastor. "And that's a lot of people, especially when you're talking about a town that only has 15,000 residents!" The August sun was so hot on the pavement that Pastor Hickman's sister reports that her tennis shoes began melting while she was serving!

It was an impossible task to do alone, and Richard says it was only through relationships that the task was accomplished. "I have used Somebody Cares as an example ever since Katrina," Richard says. "Because we became connected with Doug years ago, when the crisis hit, the network was already in place. I tell people all the time 'Get connected with what's important.' Don't wait for the crisis."

Picayune for the most part is currently up and running. Resurrection Life has grown from about 1500 to 2000 (over 10% of the town's population) and is committed to serving their congregation and the city. RLM's Manna Ministries is a diverse and multi-faceted ministry meeting the needs of thousands of people both physically and spiritually through food and clothing distribution, a free medical clinic, a ministry to mentally and physically challenged people, drug assistance programs, and benevolence assistance for low income families. Manna Ministries serves 20,000 individuals each year, and is constructing a new facility on property donated by the city.

"Picayune is not a big city, and RLC is not a 'mega church' like we know them in the 'big cities,'" team member Tania Hernandez observed. "But they are faithful with the community they have been entrusted with and the resources they have been blessed with. They will hear the words, 'Well done, my good and faithful servant.'"

Another team member, Cynthia Sanchez, agrees: "Jesus was truly in that city."

Pearlington MS
South of Picayune and slightly to the east lies the small community of Pearlington. We were greeted by Doug Pennington from Hickory Hammock Baptist Church (HHBC) in Milton FL-a sister city to nearby Waveland-and Pastor and Mrs. Rawls from First Missionary Baptist Church. Initially intending to assist, naturally, with Stage 1 relief efforts in Waveland, Hickory Hammock's assessment teams were continually being directed to meet the needs in Pearlington. Since then, they have "adopted" the community and have been coordinating teams and rebuilding efforts for two years. Somebody Cares was connected with Pearlington through our relationshp with Pastor John Elliott from Gulf Coast Foursquare Church in Hitchcock TX, which faithfully sends construction teams to Pearlington each month. Through the designated donation we received earlier this year, we've been able to help fund some of those trips.

Prior to Katrina, Pearlington was small but segregated. White churches were literally on one side of the tracks, black churches on the other. Now, there is no division. "We've crossed racial, economic, and denominational barriers," Doug Pennington says. "We're doing Kingdom work."

HHBC oversees the rebuilding efforts of a coalition of four churches: Hope Chapel, New Hope Church, African Episcopal Methodist Church, and First Missionary Baptist, which is the oldest African American Church in Southwest Mississippi, founded 137 years ago. Pastor and Mrs. Rawls have been commuting daily from their home in Picayune since the hurricane and have renamed the church "House of Bread." The coalition also works closely with the Salvation Army, who trains all volunteers in grief and trauma counseling, and Walls of Hope, which focuses on re-building homes. Gene Butterfield, a contractor who left his businesss in Virginia to live by faith and serve in relief by founding Walls of Hope, estimates that it will take two to five years to complete the rebuilding.

Pearlington had a population of 1700 residents before the storm, and it is currently back up to 1200-1400. Children attend school 35 minutes away.

Mark said, "T hough it's a place that was once in the eye of the storm, it is now a place where the eye of the Lord is pleased with what He sees: The body of Christ being the body, helping each other, giving and receiving, and, in the process, rebuilding a community where the church is becoming a place of hope again." Mark Roye

Abiding Temple, Ninth Ward, New Orleans
As we entered the Ninth Ward to meet with Pastor Marc and Angie Smith from Abiding Temple, God had arranged a divine appointment with Operation Blessing. The 700 Club had sent a crew to meet up with their local on-site crew to do a two-year update for CBN, and they had parked by chance outside the Smiths' church building. Not only was it a time for Doug and Somebody Cares-who have a long-running partnership with OBI-to catch up with friends from OBI and CBN, it was also an opportunity for us to arrange an impromptu CBN interview with the Smiths.

Marc and Angie's facility is a large two-story building that onced housed a youth center with pool tables and other activiies on the first floor and the church sanctuary upstairs. Now, with the sanctuary still in needs of repairs, the church has been meeting downstairs. At one time, over 100 children came there weekly came to be encouraged with after school programs funded by the city. Now, because the city's funding is down, the young people are joining gangs and hanging out on street corners. Of the 500 churches that had previously occupied the neighborhood, only 20 are currently operating.

"Compared to two years ago, we are in a better position to reach out to the community because so many people have moved back in the past year. Before that, maybe one in every five houses was occupied. Now it is one in every two houses. There's a new attitude now. Everybody is determined to see things 'normalized.' But we want to see that happened based on Scripture."

Having been in ministry for 18 years, Marc and Angie are no strangers to living by faith. With a congregation that has dwindled and lost all they own as well, the Smiths have been living off of their insurance money. "Then God just sends strangers to bless us! So we have to say, He is good, He is the provider, and He is the source! We don't have a complaint at all."

During the visit, Somebody Cares was able to write a check to cover the remaining expenses for the sanctuary repairs-including new doors for all doorways and a new sound system-so the church can move back upstairs and re-open the youth center.

"It is a blessing from God to know that 'somebody cares' about the purpose and plan of God coming to pass in New Orleans," the Smiths wrote to us later. "Words cannot express the joy that has come upon us. Thank you for allowing God to use you."

The Smiths said there is an immediate need for clothing, shoes, and school supplies for children of all ages, along with recreation items for the outreach center.

Youth With A Mission New Orleans
"You're not just restoring our homes. You're restoring our lives."

Over and over again, YWAM New Orleans directors Steve and Bronwen Niles have heard comments like these coming from the New Orleans residents they are helping throughout the city. Using every square inch of their available facilities to house work-teams as often as possible, YWAM has had so many teams come through they have literally lost count of the numbers. "There is so much hopelessness and despair," Bronwen says, noting the increase in murders and suicides. "Sometimes we just sit and listen to people tell their stories. But it's a wonderful time to talk to people about the Lord."

Steve tells of meeting a 65-year-old man who was standing in line with him at Home Depot. "When I told him we could help him with his house, he started crying right there in the store. Nobody else had offered to help."

The YWAM work teams are focused on gutting homes. Houses that are cited by the city for not being gutted are bull-dozed if the gutting is not completed within 30 days. Steve met one elderly woman who returned to the city not even knowing she had been cited, only to discover home was no longer there. Somebody Cares has been able to help YWAM purchase enough tools to gut multiple houses at one time, along with a new pick-up truck and all the office furnishings to re-open their crisis pregnancy center.

During one of their gutting assignments, a YWAM team was able to recover some precious belongings for an 87-year-old woman who was relocated to Fort Worth afer Katrina.

"Our connection with Miss Hattie began when she contacted our YWAM office about our free house-gutting services," Steve says. During that initial conversation, she said that her house had received 10 feet of water during Katrina. "You are doing a job my daughter and I could not physically do."

"While our team was doing the dirty job of removing all the moldy furniture and belongings from the house, a teenage girl saw something sparkling in the midst of the rubble on the floor, which we later discovered was Miss Hattie's diamond engagement ring," Steve recalls. "The other items found that day included silver dollars dated back to 1880 and a complete set of dishes with gold trim."

Steve and Bronwen visited Fort Worth to personally deliver the diamond engagement ring, the silver dollars, and the wedding dishes.While there, they learned that the recovery of each of these items was a specific answer to prayer.

"Unknown to us," they said, "Miss Hattie had been praying that God would help our team find these specific items while they were gutting her home. The silver dollars had a lot of sentimental value to Miss Hattie because they were a gift from a woman she worked for after her husband died. The dishes belonged to her daughter whose husband died suddenly five years ago. The only thing her daughter had wanted from their house was her wedding dishes."

"All of us were in tears," Bronwen says. "When we left she said, 'I will never forget you but I know I'll see you again.'"

The Dream Center New Orleans
It was once called The Jerusalem Temple, the scene of Mardi Gras balls, concerts, and other high society festivities. Today, any New Orleans resident still knows the building by that name, but soon they will know it as a place where dreams are birthed and hope is restored. The facility was purchased by Church of the King in Mandeville, pastored by Steve Robinson, for the purpose of transforming it into the Dream Center New Orleans. Strategically located on one of the most visible and frequented locations in the city on St. Charles Avenue, the Dream Center borders the beginning of the elegant Garden District on one side and the New Orleans inner city on the other.

"The vision of the Dream Center is to reach people and build their lives so that they are empowered to achieve the dream that God has for them" says the Dream Center website. "This dream becomes a reality as they develop healthy life skills to maintain positive lifestyles by caring for the whole person - spirit, soul, and body."

One of their current projects is the renovation of the second floor auditorium, which seats 1700. The auditorium will be used for theater performances and other cultural events as an outreach to the community. Dream Center students will be able to receive training in various areas of the arts, as well.

A mobile medical clinic in the parking lot will soon be one of the only free clinics operating in the city. A trailer next the clinic was donated to be used as a dental clinic.

Dr. Doreen Babo serves as the Dream Center director, working with Diane Amos. Dr. Babo and her husband served in Nigeria for many years, and Diane moved with her husband from California to help with long-term relief. Both women are committed to seeing the vision God has given their church body come to pass.

"Right now, we see the racial barriers have come down. We are seeing more Chrsitian leadership emerge in the city. Pleas pray that it continues."

Dr. Babo says the economy of the city is "extremely fragile." Finances to continue with the renovation, manpower, and medical personnel are some of their biggest needs.

The Next Step: Somebody Still Cares!
In response to the ongoing needs of the city, Somebody Cares America is planning a city-wide "compassion crusade," currently targeted for March of 2008, called "Somebody Still Cares, New Orleans!" Working with our ministry partners above, SCA will recruit work teams for construction and gutting houses and, during a two-week period, will offer youth-oriented athletic activities, concerts, and medical missions. Doug Stringer wants to begin with a "Somebody Still Cares" billboard campaign and by bringing in teams of intercessors to blanket the city with prayer before the outreach. Among the groups participating will be Athletes Who Care, Medical Professionals Who Care, Business Professionals Who Care, and more.

"What would it look like, in our lifetime," Doug says, "to take a city that has been literally washed away and rebuild it on a new foundation?"

Prayer and compassion, he says, are not event, they are a lifestyle. "Our desire is not to just blow in with a big even then blow out again. We want to leave a deposit as we equip, empower and encourage those who are in New Orleans for the long haul-serving in the church and the front line ministries-so they can fulfill the mandates God has given them."

Your continued support can help us make possible what seems like an impossible task: rebuilding a city once known for its decadence on a godly foundation.

"The church in New Orleans has been given the opportunity to be a voice of hope in a city that has a daily struggle finding the strength to continue on. I have never seen a city that is so spiritually vulnerable. It is time now for us to help them rise up and take their place with the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Update in Tania-ville

I'm about 3 months post-graduation, and almost 2 months into my new job. It's been a ride filled with God's amazing grace. Although, I would prefer not to commute 40 minutes to an hour each way each day, I love being with my family. I could not be more grateful for my job, and the wonderful servants of God that I am PRIVILEGED to know and work alongside. I am so amazed, challenged, and encouraged by their faith, their love for God, their kingdom-mindset, their lives in general. My boss Dr. Doug Stringer is a man whose life is worth learning from and imitating (as He imitates Christ). It would be a long post to talk about his life, but definitely one worth asking me about. I'm so honored to be working for Him, but ultimately for his master-Jesus Christ.

I've been helping complete a disaster prepardness and response manual, and we've had our first Houston-area training for churches and ministries last Saturday. We are now preparing for our annual summit and benefit banquet in October. This is a time for all our chapters, ministry partners and affiliates to come together and share the amazing outreach and compassion work they have been doing in their communities. I've moved into more of a role of chapter laison (making sure we're servicing on chapters well, getting reports from them...internal marketing in a sense). The most exciting part though, is getting in on the "fron lines" (i.e. getting to particpate in praying with people who call our office, helping single moms find jobs and other assistance so they providide for their children... the list goes on, and its such joy to have people say, "Wow, you really care...You are the first person to take the time to really help me!" I've heard it more than once. It's awesome how God can use us to be a real and tangible expression of his love for them.

This past Saturday, I got to teach a computer class for Hispanic pastors (in Spanish)...My bestest friend Lydia Jones, taught it last week, and we can both testify what a joy it was be able to use the skills we've been blessed to acquire for the benefit of others.
Back in Pearland, I'm involved in a small group bible study through my church on Thursday evenings. We're going through Jold Eldrege's book The Sacred Romance. On Saturdays I have the joy of teaching children's church to 3 and 4 year olds (hence the picture to this post). What great things God teaches me through this precious children who love so unconditionally. They don't hold back in their affection...It's awesome to see and a challenge to imitate. For example, I was up front leading the kids in some songs, when out of the blue, a precious little girl comes up to me, give me a hug (no words said) and then returns to her place and continues to sing. So spontaneous, so pure!

Sundays is my day to rest and spend at home...It's beautifully turning into a day where I can (interuption-free) spend time in God's Word, with God, and with afternoon nap is popular on this day too!

On a Shawn note, he is awesome as ever. Still sailing on the grand seas, in leadership on the cruise ship's Christian fellowship, and of course drumming it up. He visits me again in the first week of October. He is a joy and blessing...we learn so much from each other. I love being a part of His life, and having him as part of mine. On October 5th, it will be 2 years exactly from the day we met on the Continental flight to Calgary.

This update is quickly becoming long, so I'll end it now. Blessings and love to all!

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Clamshell Containers and God

For my job at Somebody Cares America, I've been helping complete a disaster prepardness and response training manual for churches and other christian organizations. The manual has been developed from the experience and expertise of our local and national relief parterns. Last summer, many of them met in D.C with Somebody Cares at a "think-tank," on how the church can co-labor more effectively to be our government's greatest asset when disaster strikes. Many of those at the meeting were some of the first responders in New Orleans and other places where Katrina and Rita did their thing. The stories I was able to read are amazing (I'm talking jaw-dropping)...God did so many cool things through His Church. The following is a very cool testimony from a pastor in one of the areas where Rita did lots of damage...this is just a glimpse of the amazing provisions of God...Enjoy!

"It [Hurricane relief] was just one extended adventure for me, just a great spiritual adventure. I'll give you one testimony: The Southern Baptist Convention guys showed up and they had five city block of [cooking equipment] organized and put together. The head cook came over and said 'we don't' have anything to serve [the people] in.' They were handing out food in pieces of aluminum foil, and he said, 'what are we going to do?' I said 'all I know how to do is pray,' so I put my hand on his shoulder and I said, 'Lord, Aubrey and I know that you know where all the clamshell containers in the world are, and you know what we need, and I ask you to give us what we need.' I took my hand off his shoulder, and the phone rang, and it was a volunteer from Pennsylvania or somewhere in Doug's (Somebody Cares) office. He said 'I'm so and so from Pennsylvania. I'm here just volunteering and I just got the call that somebody has some clamshells they'd like to give away. Would you like some?' And I said, 'Yes! I'll take all you can give me!" I called one of my denominational leaders (Jerry) who was going to drive that way in his car [so he could] pick them up. And he said, 'find out how many they have.' And I found out and called him back and said, 'well, you car won't do. They have six pallet loads of clamshells.' I said, 'You know, Jerry, I guess God is going to have to provide a 26-foot enclosed trailer with a one-tone Dooley truck if we're going to get those clamshell….My phone rang; It was my wife who was at our distribution center and said, 'Charles, a guy just drove in from West Texas with a 26-foot horse trailer with a one-tone truck. What do you want him to do with it?' That [miraculous provisions, etc] happened every day, over and over."