[Hurricane Update] News from Back Bay Mission in Biloxi

January 24, 2006

A message from Shari Prestemon, Executive Director of Back Bay Mission, a community ministry of the United Church of Christ, in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Dear friends:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Christ who dares to enter our lives with bold love and presence.

Unbelievably, it has been nearly five months since the fury of Hurricane Katrina irrevocably changed our lives. Yet it was only last month that many of us along the Mississippi Gulf Coast were allowed to travel certain roadways to see for the first time the scope of Katrina's wrath. In late December, I made my first post-Katrina sojourn along Highway 90, which follows the beach for approximately 60 miles from the east end of the Mississippi Coast to the west. I braced myself for what I would witness, but nothing had truly prepared me for what I saw. The farther west I traveled, toward what had been the eye of the storm, the more my fragile defenses fell, as terrible destruction evolved into absolute annihilation. First there were homes and churches and other structures gutted violently by the power of water but still somehow standing; then there was simply nothing... for mile after mile after mile. Despite my resolve, tears flowed as I made that solemn drive... tears of disbelief, tears of sorrow, tears of surrender to the massive loss that is now our sobering reality.

Since that day, I have made that same journey many times, often with visitors who've come seeking understanding of our Katrina experience. And I've begun to notice that a part of the Katrina story can be glimpsed by reading the many signs scattered up and down the Coast.... Most are hand-made signs of plywood and carefully scripted spray paint, telling a tale of our emotional and spiritual capacity to deal and to overcome. They express frustration and anger, sometimes tempered by humor, like the one that asked Santa at Christmas to put their slow-to-pay insurance company on his "naughty list". They express perseverance, as did one that insisted in typical Southern style, "We can do it, y'all!" And they express the human capacity for hope and faith despite overwhelming circumstances. One couple living in a FEMA trailer on the slab of what used to be their beautiful home changed an early sign that proclaimed their street a "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" to one that now decrees it a "Hiway to Hope".

Most days, probably most of us can begin to see that we are indeed transitioning from brokenness to hope, if only in small ways. Debris continues to be removed. More and more businesses are returning to normal hours. There is a constant hum of activity that promises more progress ahead. Yet actual rebuilding has hardly yet begun in our communities, and we now know more profoundly that which so many tried to tell us... We have an extremely long road ahead of us. Recovery will be a slow, laborious process over the very long term.

This is a realization we have also come to grasp at Back Bay Mission. We are making progress, though we have come to define "progress" a bit differently than in former days. Our operations are running relatively smoothly (dare I say "normally"?) out of our two cozy work trailers. Most staff positions left vacant by the storm's displacement of former staff members are now filled. We can do all those gloriously simple things, like receive mail, make phone calls, and communicate by email from these humble new office homes. Most importantly, of course, we are serving the community. We are providing financial aid to hundreds every month. We are housing and assisting the homeless. We are raising issues of justice and concern with community leaders and planners. We are working diligently to create new programs and ministries that will bring transformation in this new post-Katrina context. And, aided by UCC work groups from our churches nationwide, we are facilitating disaster relief and recovery work in countless homes and churches.

We have recently moved two large mobile homes onto our property that will serve as temporary housing for disaster recovery work teams for the next eighteen months. We continue to schedule work teams through 2006 and into 2007, and invite others to join us in this critical labor of love. Groups interested in helping in this way may contact our volunteer coordinator, Peg Jacobs (bbvol@datasync.com), to inquire about the schedule and any other questions related to these efforts.

Property issues remain daunting for Back Bay Mission. One of our buildings has already been demolished. Perhaps as many as five others will yet be demolished. Our main administration and service building -- the one building on our campus we felt sure we could save -- awaits the verdict of FEMA and city officials, as the possibility of new elevation requirements now jeopardize our hopes to repair it. Of course, insurance issues have everything to do with our ability to rebuild our facilities, and we continue to wade through those issues with tenacity and wisdom.

We are crafting a new vision for the future of this beloved ministry in the United Church of Christ, remaining ever true to our commitment to "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God." Our ministry is more relevant and needed here than ever, and we sense the urgent call of God to step forward in bold faith to be of service to a hurting and overwhelmed people. And so we plod ahead, often uncertain of the path, but trusting that the way will be carved out before us.

Pray for us. Pray for the tens of thousands across this Gulf coast whose lives and spirits have been uprooted by Hurricane Katrina, many of whom still today live in circumstances beyond your imagination. Pray for our sisters and brothers in Florida, for whom hurricane recovery from last year's storms still continues. Pray for our local and national leaders, that wisdom and compassion would guide their decision-making about the future of our area. Pray for Back Bay Mission and our staff members, that our ministry might be creative and responsive to a community experiencing enormous need. And pray for our Board of Directors, who will convene next month to make significant decisions about the character of our future ministry to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Pray for all of us... .

I am reminded of Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." Rejoicing and giving thanks have been far from easy acts of faith these last five months. Truth be known, deep sorrow and overwhelmed spirits have often been the momentary victors. But at the end of each long day, we remember how you have borne us and sustained us and enfolded us in your love and generosity. And we discover within ourselves the impulse to give thanks after all, rejoicing in your encircling presence.

Please continue to walk with us on this very long journey. Our need of you remains. Our thanks for you is constant.

Peace and grace,

Shari Prestemon
Executive Director

(Please note: Your gifts to aid in our recovery and the recovery of this community may now be sent directly to us at Back Bay Mission; 1012 Division Street; Biloxi, MS 39530. We ask that you please do not send clothing or other thrift shop types of items. Due to our extremely limited building capacity, we cannot store or distribute such items.)

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