As Katrina strikes La., Miss., Baptist relief workers respond

(ABP) -- Baptists across the nation are opening their doors and hearts to those fleeing Hurricane Katrina.

Baptist churches throughout Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi have become impromptu shelters for refugees fleeing Hurricane Katrina Aug. 29. In partnership with the American Red Cross, congregations are sharing their facilities with those in need.

Katrina made landfall east of New Orleans, La., with wind gusts as high as 140 mph, knocking out much of the city's power and flooding portions of the city. Several water pumps designed to prevent flooding have failed, leaving some people stranded on their roofs.

Coastal Mississippi cities such as Gulfport and Biloxi also sustained substantial damage. By afternoon of Aug. 29, Katrina still had sustained winds of 95 mph. Portions of Alabama also are experiencing flooding.

Many people evacuated the area along the coast before the hurricane hit. About 1 million of New Orleans' 1.3 million people fled the city. The American Red Cross responded by opening up shelters across the northern portions of the state.

Lee Weems, associate pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Alexandria, La., said his congregation wanted to help those in need. Housing a shelter is an opportunity for the church to be "Christ in the community of hurting people."

The Golden Triangle Baptist Association recently opened its Shepherd's Inn Gaspard Ministry Center in Port Arthur, Texas, to more than 100 people who fled the hurricane. The ministry center, which typically serves families of inmates, started receiving individuals Sunday afternoon and was full by early Monday morning.

When news spread of people coming, Christians began asking the center how they could help, said Mary Green, residence director at the facility. They are volunteering their time and sharing their faith with the newcomers.

The Baptist General Convention of Texas is supporting this effort through designated disaster-relief funds and is sending two trained chaplains.

Baptists want to help when people return to their homes as well. The Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board has activated 29 units from 20 states to help with clean-up, feeding and providing showers. The units are traveling toward the affected area or are waiting further orders near Louisiana and Mississippi.

Though relief agencies initially have asked for 300,000 meals, Jim Burton, NAMB's director of volunteer mobilization, expects that number could eventually top 1 million meals.

Gary Smith, Texas Baptist Men disaster-relief coordinator, is waiting in Marshall, Texas, with seven disaster-relief teams from his home state. Some of the units have tentative orders to enter Louisiana Aug. 30.

Disaster-relief ministry is an opportunity for believers to act upon their faith in serving others in times of need, Smith said. Acts of ministry can change the way people view Christianity and open avenues to share the Gospel.

"Jesus said, 'Give a cup of cold water in my name,'" Smith said. "These people have a definite need for a warm meal and cold drink."

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship's disaster-relief efforts focus on local churches serving. The fellowship also has pledged $15,000 for hurricane relief ministry in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.