In the "Twenty-something" Sunday School class, Daniel told us about the oak tree that used to be in the center of the courtyard of the old church. You can still see the oak tree; it stands. The church that surrounded it was utterly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. From the reports I heard while talking to people at First Baptist in Long Beach, Mississippi, a new church was built after the old one came down -- and by a new church they didn't just mean the building.
In 1909, twenty-one charter members of the first First Baptist Church of Long Beach met together in a school, and a year later they were meeting in a church building. In 2005, after their church building was destroyed by the storm, the congregation of First Baptist Long Beach was again meeting in a school. That first Sunday service after the storm was a joyous reunion; discovering who had survived the storm and who was still in town.
The congregation moved from school to school after the hurricane. Food and clothing were also distributed from several of the same locations. Most everyone in the congregation was involved in the process of distributing goods to those in need, cleaning debris and rebuilding structures.
At one point the congregation was meeting in a building with a roof but no walls. The senior pastor, Dr. LaRue Stephens, told the congregation that it must continue on like that, as though there were no walls between the church and the community, reaching out to those in need. I talked to an usher named John who said about Dr. Stephens, "I love that man. He took on so much after Katrina in the rebuilding process. I'd lay down my life for that man."
After the storm, many people came to help. Natives were amazed to see truck after truck arrive bearing goods, with no payment expected for the goods or the drivers. Rick and Lynn, a couple who lived in Baltimore, Maryland, read about the devastation on the Gulf Coast and felt called to move to Long Beach. Rick brought his construction skills to Alabama to lead work teams, and Lynn soon followed. The couple had to live month after month in a trailer until they finally moved into a house. Once they had a house, they used it to shelter teams of workers on short term mission trips.*
Pastor John Jones came to the church after Katrina, but he believes the overflowing generosity shown to the church led to a spirit of generosity in the church. In the years following the storm, many in the congregation served the needs of the community. Among other things, the church has run Beach Club, an after school club for children.
One of the most impressive ministries of the church is their overseas missions trips. A couple of years after Pastor John arrived at Long Beach, he helped plan a missions trip to Peru. Since then, the church, which has about five hundred members, has sponsored trips to Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, China, and, soon, a trip to India. Every six months the church sends a group to Haiti, rotating ministry and medical teams. John said about a hundred church members have been on mission trips, but Sandy Stephens, the senior pastor's wife, put the number closer to one hundred and fifty. Either of those numbers makes for an impressive percentage of the congregation involved in missions.
The youth group has taken mission trips to Vieux Carre Baptist, the church we visited in the French Quarter of New Orleans. This coming summer, there will be a youth trip to Chicago. Mindy and I had the opportunity to visit the Wednesday night youth group and talk about our church visiting adventure this year. John wants to expose kids to great variety of churches in different settings and cultures.
On Wednesday night, we met Rachel, who volunteers in the youth group (she's the one who invited us to the Twenty-somethings Sunday School class). She's only been attending the church for a year and a half, but she was attracted by the missions focus of the church. She believes that a church that doesn't have such an outward focus will be a struggling church. Rachel said there were other factors that attracted her to the church: she wanted to sing in a choir, which the church has. She was drawn to Bill and Beth, the leaders of her Sunday School class, who demonstrated great care for her. She also said that the church has helped her grow in her devotional and prayer life.
We heard story after story of God's care for the people of the church after Katrina and how that led to a spirit of giving to others. I couldn't help but think of these words of Paul from the first chapter of Second Corinthians: "He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God."
God has taken the people of Long Beach Baptist through the storm and they have taken up the responsibility of doing the same for others.
*A sidebar about Rick and Lynn and how we came to stay with them, illustrating the kind of thing that keeps happening on this journey: In Santa Fe, New Mexico, we stayed with an old friend and visited her church. At that church, a member of the worship team gave us the name of a pastor in New Orleans, leading us to stay there. While helping with a project at the church in New Orleans, new friends put us in touch with John Jones, the Student Ministries pastor at First Baptist, Long Beach. John called Rick and Lynn, confident they would house us sight unseen. His confidence in their hospitality proved well founded.
Service Length: 1 hour 13 minutes
Sermon Length: 34 minutes
Visitor Treatment: a number of people said hello as we entered the building (one man was stationed outside to greet people as they came in, and a few others were inside or at the door to the worship center). The welcome center is highly visible when entering, as are the check-in locations for nursery and preschool children. The greeting time in worship was warm, and visitors were encouraged to fill out registration forms (we saw one version at the welcome center and another during the worship service. Either way, visitors were encouraged to place them in the offering plates as they left).
Followup by Tuesday Morning:
(but we had lunch with several members of the church on Sunday, and were in
touch via FaceBook with a couple others).We also got an email from the church's Minister of Education on Tuesday.
Our Rough Count: 350
Probable Ushers' Count: 415
Snacks: vending machines in cafe area; homemade biscuits with butter and jam, coffee and water in the Twenty-somethings Sunday School class
Musicians: Young Musicians Choir: 8 girls and 9 boys, singing two songs with music track
Adult Choir: 11 men, 15 women
additional: organ (woman), piano (woman), electric guitar (man), electric bass (man), director (man)
Songs: "Family of God"
"He keeps me singing"
"This is amazing grace" (Young Musicians)
"Amazing grace/my chains are gone" (Young Musicians)
"Down at the cross"
"His grace will lead us through" (Adult Choir)
"Just as I am"
Miles to church: 2
Miles from start: 7,865
Total 2016 Miles: 7,820
Church website: www.fbclb.com