Katrina Journal
Slidell, LA — September 2005

Heavenly Hands:

Slidell was a bustle of activity. Grace Memorial was definitely no exception. Having taken over most of the physical structure, volunteers from Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, and New Mexico kept things hopping with little down-time. When I would report to the parking lot at 5:00 in the morning, there was already plenty of movement afoot. By 5:15 at the latest, there were coffee and muffins on the serving line table, eggs cracking for breakfast, and other smells arising from the outdoor kitchen. By 6:00, breakfast was being served for 250 to 300 volunteers, and at least the inventory crew had broken a good sweat by that time.

Preparing 10,000 meals a day is no simple matter, yet there were plenty of hands working together to accomplish just that. The inventory crew pulled stock from storage inside the church building or from the trailers in the parking lot. Another crew operated can openers—186 cans of fruit cocktail, 186 cans of corn, and 342 cans of beef stew adds up to a lot of cans, but that was lunch one day. The cooks prepared the food, heating the vegetables and entrees to 175F before packaging them in pre-heated cambros (thermal containers for food transport). Lunch had to be ready for some of the Red Cross vehicles to leave between 10:00 and 10:30. Supper needed to be ready for distribution by 2:30. Red Cross vehicles had to be loaded with the certainty that they had all the food they needed, clamshell takeout plates, utensils, snacks, and drinks. When the used cambros returned, they must be spray-washed, washed, rinsed, and sterilized in preparation for being used again. Any unopened cases of food needed placing back in storage and onto the inventory list. Trucks must be unloaded and their merchandise stored. At the proper time, drinks must be prepared, lunch served, then the serving line cleaned and prepared for duty once more.

There were many hands to work, and much work for them to do. Chaplains were on hand to minister to and pray with people coming through the serving line. People needed to be directed to the appropriate place to receive the help they needed. Questions needed answering, meals needed planning, purchase orders needed to be made, and new volunteers oriented to their tasks for the week.

By September 13th, Baptist disaster relief kitchens had prepared over 3,000,000 meals since the storm we call Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast 16 days before. What we experienced in Slidell was proceeding in other parts as well, with kitchens in Picayune, Prentiss, Hattiesburg, and now in DeRidder, LA. Helping hands are putting feet to the message and demands of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Preparing food to assist people whose homes need rebuilding, whose families need the encouragement of knowing that someone cares enough to give their time and energy, leave the comfort of home and family to meet the needs of a stranger.

I didn’t find many strangers down in Slidell, however. I found friends. I found people who shared part of their stories and invited me into their lives. Crab told me the story of his son’s boat turned upside-down on the pilings where his house had once stood. When he received good news from the insurance adjuster, he hunted me down to share the news. John told me the story of God providing the means for his home to be cleaned of trees, limbs, and busted drywall. Another couple who had shared their need for help with roof repair returned just to thank me for sending them to the right place. Another friend I found in need of medical attention returned with the news that the ER had treated her bronchitis free of charge.

I saw a community transformed in the midst of disaster. Amid all the grief, destruction, pain, and loss, I saw people reaching out in ways that were new—the mother with little to her name dropping off some canned goods to help someone else. There was the woman whose house was mostly destroyed, who came to ask where she might donate some clothing. There were the youth of Grace Memorial, whose own homes were damaged, spending their time helping people coming for assistance.

The volunteers at the feeding unit did a lot of work. The chainsaw and mud-out teams put in some long, hard hours. The people of Slidell and Grace Memorial reached out to one another as God’s hands extended in simple grace. With the steeple of Grace Memorial pointing into the parking lot, there was a message of God’s hands reaching out through so many who cared enough to set self aside.

I have a new picture of heaven that I carry with me. It is the picture of all those helping hands stretched out to one another. It is not so much the long hours we worked. It is just the fact that we did not work for ourselves. As God stretched out His hands through ours, we received a better glimpse of what heavenly hands really look like.

—©Copyright 2005 Christopher B. Harbin

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