BATON ROUGE, La. (RNS) In a northern Baton Rouge suburb last weekend, Jared Stockstill watched with alarm as the floodwaters rose on his street.
Then he started hearing that rescue workers weren’t able to reach everyone who needed help. Stockstill is the administrator of Bethany Church, a nondenominational megachurch with five campuses in the Baton Rouge area.
He and other church members launched his boat off the trailer where it was parked in his driveway and set out on Saturday (Aug. 13) to do what they could.
“A lot of the elderly people in their homes had five feet of water and were stranded in their houses,” he told the PBS program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.” “We just began riding my boat up the street … pulling up to people’s front doors in the boat, picking them up, helping them into the boat.”
Experts are calling the flooding in South Louisiana this past week the worst natural disaster since Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Tens of thousands of people have been displaced. State officials say at least 40,000 homes have been severely damaged or destroyed. And the full magnitude of the devastation is not yet known.
As the crisis continues to unfold, faith-based groups are mobilizing to help on many fronts: supporting rescue efforts, providing temporary shelter, organizing teams of volunteers, distributing aid and working to develop plans for long-term recovery and rebuilding.
Bethany Church’s south Baton Rouge campus has become a key local relief point, where victims are receiving food, clothing, toiletries and other desperately needed supplies. Lead pastor Jonathan Stockstill, who is Jared Stockstill’s brother, says the work is an expression of their faith.
“What we’re trying to see happen is for people to see that God loves them by seeing his church move like we are moving,” the pastor said.
Bethany is doing the work amid its own losses.
The church’s campus north of Baton Rouge was flooded and sustained extensive damage to the 6,000-seat sanctuary and school. Because the facility was not located in a traditional flood zone, the church — like many residents here — did not have flood insurance.
Many local churches in the area are housing evacuees who have not been able to return to their homes. Others are working to meet the evacuees’ day-to-day needs.
The faith-based Mercy Chefs was among the first national charities on the ground. Its professional chef-volunteers have been preparing about 9,000 meals every day in mobile kitchens.
“We got here just as quickly as we could get through the barricades and the roadblocks and the high water and started serving food immediately upon arrival,” said Mercy Chefs founder Gary LeBlanc.
Volunteers from area churches are delivering the meals by trucks and boats to evacuees in shelters and motels, as well as to first responders and law enforcement. Some recipients said they hadn’t had a hot meal in days.
“To come to a disaster area — folks that have lost everything — and share a meal with them brings some semblance of hope,” LeBlanc said, adding “you should do that over a good meal, the best meal you are able to make, not just something you opened and heated and slopped out.”
Other national faith-based groups, including Catholic Charities, Samaritan’s Purse, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and Operation Blessing, are deploying equipment and resources, as well as assembling teams of volunteers from across the country.
The outpouring of help is an encouragement to many local residents who feel their plight has been given short shrift in national media coverage.
Carol Parker, finance secretary at Star Hill Church in Baton Rouge, said her congregation is persevering despite the hardships.
Parker’s home of 30 years was flooded by waist-deep water. She is waiting for assessments from her insurance company and FEMA about the extent of the damage and how much help she may receive.
She told PBS while her material possessions may be gone, her faith survived. “Just like my pastor said … we didn’t lose everything,” she said. “We’ve got family and we’ve got God, so do not say we lost everything.”