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Volunteers step up to care for evacuees

Church officials in the six major shelters in the Brookhavenarea are expecting their Hurricane Gustav evacuees to begin movingback south in the latter part of the week as Louisiana parishesreopen one by one.

Central Baptist Church Pastor Ryan Thurman said most of the 92remaining evacuees in the church have been able to contact friendsand family back home and have begun moving farther south, even ifnot yet all the way to Louisiana.

“We’ve already sent two families farther south, and we’llprobably have about half of our folks go home [Wednesday],” hesaid.

As Gustav moves farther west, ending the weather crisis andwinding down another Brookhaven run as a place of refuge, Thurmanand his fellow ministers across the city and county are beginningto evaluate themselves. They are taking note of what has goneright, wrong and what could be improved for the next time.

Thurman and other ministers have all reported at least one areathat needs no improvement – volunteers. Out of a congregation sizeof about 115, Thurman said 100 church members made themselvesavailable to serve at the shelter and more than 50 have rotatedthrough in some capacity.

“Our church has really stepped up,” he said. “When we had anidea that we were going to be a shelter, our members saw the needand really came together.”

To rally his congregation, Thurman used the “One Call Now”system, a mass messaging system that allows him to send recordedvoice updates to all church members.

Thurman also kept up good communication with his volunteers,addressing them every day at 1:30 p.m. He said he encouraged themto meet, mingle and tell each other hurricane stories to create afriendly atmosphere.

Thurman also turned several of his evacuees into volunteers.

“If we can give shelter residents responsibilities – cleanup,putting tables away – it gives them a sense of ownership abouttheir shelter,” he said. “It creates high morale and they take careof the place.”

Brookhaven shelters have, of course, been taking care of theevacuees. Each has served three meals a day – most with snacks inbetween – and it hasn’t been mush. Generally, each shelter hasprovided a big breakfast, a light lunch and a big supper.

Macedonia Baptist Church Pastor Garland Boyd has had his churchmembers scouring Wal-Mart and the grocery stores, backing up thestaple items eventually provided by the American Red Cross withsupplies to fill the almost 200 stomachs housed at the church.

The idea is to provide food easy to prepare that will feed manymouths, he said, but the church wanted its evacuees to eat well.Macedonia has provided its evacuees with meals consisting ofbiscuits and gravy, chicken, hotdogs, hamburgers and tacos.

Church members have also prepared large amounts of desserts likecobblers and cakes for the evacuees, Boyd said.

“We’re trying to really feed them and do well by them,” hesaid.

The shelters have not only strove to keep bellies occupied, butminds as well. Each shelter has brought out its church toy chestand provided evacuees with footballs, basketballs, board games andcoloring books for children.

Easthaven Baptist Church Youth Minister Hampton Sims said themost popular activity for the 160 evacuees at his church, as wellas every other shelter, was watching the weather – althoughGustav-watching was cancelled Monday at Macedonia in favor ofcollege football.

“We’ve had our projectors going in the worship center and theyouth room on news stations and The Weather Channel,” Simssaid.

Sims said Easthaven also showed Christian-themed movies on theirtwo large projectors each night – such as “Facing the Giants” – andscreened “Veggie Tales” for the children.

To cap off each night, the church’s worship band took the stageto perform, usually around 9 p.m.

“It’s been a good time, man,” Sims said.

Since all the shelters in Brookhaven are churches, the sharingof the Gospel has gone beyond just Christian movies. Some churches,like Easthaven, pulled out all the stops and brought in praisemusic and delivered devotionals.

First Baptist Church Associate Pastor Jeff Doremus said hischurch took a more individual approach in witnessing to itsapproximately 80 evacuees.

“There’s a lot of down time so individually we’ve had theopportunity to talk to people about their relationship with God,”he said. “We’ve done it in an informal setting and it really workswell. Because you have welcomed in these evacuees and been graciousto them, they’re very open about talking about their spirituality.It’s really a conversation that goes on.”

All in all, every church has reported a smooth experience overthe past few days. Shelter operations have not been a walk in thepark, officials agreed, but the past experience of shelter dutyduring Hurricane Katrina in 2005 has taught many lessons, the mostimportant of which is preparation.

“We already had things in place from Katrina that we had storedaway, just waiting for the next time,” said St. Paul MissionaryBaptist Church Associate Pastor Michael Shelby. “We already had ourcore people in place, and when relief came in we had people herewaiting.”

Shelby said St. Paul already had a network of volunteers inplace – including some not affiliated with a church ororganization. A few volunteers were just driving by, he said, andwalked in to serve.

Faith Presbyterian Church’s the Rev. Robert Oates has quick,straightforward answer to why church members – entire churches -and random people volunteer countless hours to serve in shelters,which are sometimes crowded, often hot and full of strangers.

“There are so many things rewarding about it, but I guess it canbe summed up from Galatians 6:2 – ‘Carry each other’s burdens, andin this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.’ And, of course,the law of Christ is the law of love.”