It was Labor Day, and while many people relaxed for the final long weekend of summer, I was scrambling to prepare for a three-week mission in southern Mississippi. The National Guard had mobilized in response to Hurricane Katrina, and there weren’t enough chaplains for the spiritual support that was needed. So the call went out, and in the middle of my holiday barbecue, I prepared to go.
ELCA chaplain Steve Timm surveys the destruction from Hurricane Katrina in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
Four of us left from Minnesota—two chaplains and two chaplain’s assistants. We drove to Mississippi with enough food, water and supplies to sustain ourselves during the mission. When we reached Jackson, Miss., which is many miles inland, we already began to see signs of Katrina—downed trees and power lines, shingles blown from rooftops.
It would only get worse. By the time we reached the coast, the destruction was total. For miles along the water, houses were torn from their foundations—leaving only a concrete pad and a set of stairs leading nowhere to prove this had once been someone’s home. Communities inland wondered how they would ever repair the damage. Those along the coast had nothing left to repair.
My role in the wake of this destruction was spiritual support of soldiers. By definition a soldier trains for war and I, as a chaplain, help these warriors with the spiritual and emotional stress of combat. Yet many of those same combat stressors were present in this mission: separation from family, long hours, few comforts, chaos, destruction, encountering the dying and the dead, and a potentially dangerous environment. I spent hours counseling soldiers with the same skills I learned to prepare for combat, and the troops were glad to have someone to listen.
My secondary mission was to connect with churches, many of which served as relief centers. Let there be no doubt that the pastors of these churches were heroes. They lost their homes just like everyone else. Their congregations were scattered. Yet they still became the distribution coordinators for food, water, ice and other essential supplies. They became the beacons of hope amid the rubble. None of these pastors was trained in disaster response. But people looked to them anyway and, by the grace of God, they were up to the task.
Throughout the mission, I talked with scores of survivors. People told us their stories, prayed with us, thanked us for being there and offered us their hospitality. I spoke with one man outside of a Wal-Mart who had lost everything in his New Orleans home, yet he insisted on buying me a Coke as his way of saying thanks.
Christians believe God is present with them in suffering. I will testify to that belief after what I’ve seen in Mississippi. I called my wife at one point and told her the good things I sensed God was doing. Finally, she said, “Steve, I know it must be terrible there. You don’t have to hold back from telling me how bad it is.”
I answered, “Michelle, you can see the devastation on the news, and it’s as bad as it looks on TV. But the Spirit of God is so thick you can feel it, and there are so many good things happening that I can’t focus on the despair.”
Looking back, I hope I never see such devastation again. But I’m honored to have played this small part in serving God and country, and I’m encouraged by the knowledge that God truly is with us, even in this.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers