Monday, October 03, 2005

A Report from Sunday Evening in Gulfport, MS

On this past Sunday evening, I had the privilege of participating in the ordination and installation service of Guy Richard, in Biloxi, Mississippi. Guy is now the duly installed minister of the First Presbyterian Church, Gulfport, but the service was held in the First Presbyterian Church of Biloxi’s church building because the destruction wrought upon the Gulfport congregation’s church facility by Hurricane Katrina. The Rev. Richard is a former member and intern here at First Presbyterian Church and a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary. After serving in the areas of Singles and Discipleship here at First Pres, he and his wife Jennifer took their family to Edinburgh, Scotland where Guy pursued doctoral studies at New College, University of Edinburgh, and where he also served as a PCA MTW missionary, assisting in the work of the church. He was called by First Pres., Gulfport this summer, and October 2 was chosen for the date of his ordination/installation long before Katrina ever formed. Who could have imagined the havoc that storm would wreak upon the coast and our PCA congregations there, or that the ordination service would move ahead anyway?

Anne and I dropped the kids off with Marie Phillips on Sunday afternoon, right after church, picked up Ruling Elder Bebo Elkin (who had been asked by Grace Presbytery to give the pastoral charge –an exhortation to faithfulness in the Gospel ministry– to Guy in the service) and Dan Chase (RUF intern at Belhaven) and we headed to the coast. The further we went down Highway 49, the more damage we saw (but we were amazed that the progress clean up crews have made in just a month).

We arrived around 4:15 in the afternoon at the home of Ruling Elder Tim Murr, where Guy is currently living (Jennifer and the children have been living in Atlanta, and will join Guy in a small rental home in Gulfport they’ve just secured soon), and where the “church office” of First Gulfport, such as it is, is now located. We loaded up four cars full of family, members and friends and headed to the Gulfport church building – to view firsthand the damage of the storm.

So many of you who have been there and have showed me your pictures have said “these do not capture the devastation” and now I know what you mean. The massive First Baptist Church of Gulfport, had its mighty seaward wall crushed and swept away by the surge. Nothing is left of the ground floor of that great building and the bare steel I-beams now alone support the listing remainder of the upper story of the sanctuary.

It was disheartening to see in person the harm done to the First Presbyterian, Gulfport buildings. The pews are gone – ripped from the floor-bolts and swept away. The beautiful pulpit has perished too – the scraps of its remains scattered along what once was the chancel wall. The church fellowship hall was wave-washed all the way to the ceiling – removing the letters from the banners suspended therefrom. First, Gulfport and First, Biloxi are two of the handsomest presbyterian houses of worship in the State, and to behold them in their distress was troubling. But the buildings of First Biloxi have weathered the storm in much better shape than Gulfport’s. First Gulfport’s elders and congregation will have some hard decisions to make about what to do. Raze and rebuild? Relocate? Pray for wisdom and resources.

The long, slow drive along 90, down the coast to Biloxi, dodging sink holes and other obstacles, revealed the widespread impact of Katrina’s surge. Beauvoir (Jefferson Davis’ home), which had survived even the wrath of Camille, is in shambles, along with so many other stately homes. But no scene of desolation could dampen the joy given us by the Lord in the gathering and worship that night.

We arrived at First, Biloxi around 5:30 and Bebo and I met with the Grace Presbyterian Commission, in Pastor David Skinner’s office, for preparation and prayer. By this time, several encouragements had already come our way. (1) We’d heard of the crowd at First, Gulfport’s morning service – so many were present that they ran out of their meager supply of elements for communion. (2) We’d heard of the presence of Pastor Rick Phillips of the First Presbyterian Church of Coral Springs in Margate, Florida. He’d preached in the morning in Florida and then flown to Gulfport for the evening service! His congregation has heaped financial support, material supplies and tangible aid on the beleaguered folks at First, Gulfport from the very first days of the crisis. (3) We heard of the presence of several relief crews from PCA churches from Delaware (including folks from Jay Harvey’s church – Evangelical Pres. in Newark), North Carolina, South Carolina (including members of Carl Robbins’ congregation, Woodruff Road PCA in Simpsonville, SC and Mount Calvary in Spartanburg County, where Richard Thomas serves), Florida and points beyond – aiding the PCA churches and congregants from Moss Point to Biloxi to Gulfport and more. (4) We’d encountered a good contingent of folks from First, Jackson who’d made the journey down (thank you, dear friends!).

The service began a little after six. Ruling Elder Tim Murr made a number of announcements and introductions, and expressed thanks to those present who had provided help and support to the Gulfport congregation. Pastor David Skinner of Biloxi led the service. He is an impressive young man (a graduate of RTS Jackson) and set a worshipful tone of solemn joy, enthusiasm and energy from the very start.

We had lights, fans, an organ (with a very capable organist) a sound system and a packed house in the stately sanctuary of First, Biloxi, but no air conditioning – so we sweated profusely in the late afternoon coastal heat. But our delight in and gratitude to God was undiminished. A camera crew was there from the local network, and the ladies of First Presbyterian, Hattiesburg provided a delicious reception outdoors on the front lawn after the service.

Several things struck me. First, here was a glorious demonstration that the church is not a building but a people. Or to put it even more biblically – the Lord’s people is his building. The congregation in Gulfport does not have a habitable building, and had to see their new minister ordained in another congregation’s meeting house, but they are themselves the Lord’s building. The bricks of First, Gulfport are wave-battered and strewn but God is still building his church living stone by living stone.

Second, here was a minister of the Gospel who could have pulled out from his commitment and walked away to a more comfortable place of service, but didn’t. Guy is a highly educated and capable young man. He had many opportunities to serve elsewhere. He had made a commitment to come to a church and then that church had been scattered by a great storm. He arrived to find a third of his congregation without homes and jobs, many of the people were dispersed afar, he no longer had usable church buildings, no assurance of a salary, no place for his family, no place to live, no certainty that the congregation would survive the ordeal – he could have just said “Well, I’m sorry it didn’t work out, I’ll find some other place to serve,” but didn’t. He went toward the uncertainty and disruption and loss of the situation, and ministered to God’s wounded people. Guy, and the other PCA ministers on the coast, bone-tired, with no end in sight to the recovery, have soldiered on in the face of the devastation. Who knows what Gospel fruit this will bear?

Third, and following on that, it struck me that Katrina may well turn out, unexpectedly, to be God’s strategic design to bring about everlasting spiritual good to those who have suffered so much temporally and physically from her battering waves. Will Christian love shine brighter in the wake of Katrina? Will hearts be open to the Gospel that were not so before? Will God use Gospel love to all in need, in the midst of this widespread human misery, through local Bible-believing, Christ-exalting, Gospel-preaching and -living churches, to bring spiritual renewal to the coast? Let’s pray so.


Susan said...

Hallelujah! This is so glorious, and brings tears to my eyes and all the way down to my chin! I wish I could have been there. It's such a mystery--the love of the Body for its members. I'm one of the members at Rick Phillips' church and certainly not the only one of us who feels a stronger tie to the precious Gulfport brethren than to unbelieving kin. Someday I will meet them, and hopefully it will be this side of glory!

Anonymous said...

Amen to all you said. We join you in these prayers. --Debby