When Hurricane Elena struck the Florida Panhandle in the fall of 1985, my parents were the region’s appointed Home Missionaries for the Southern Baptist Convention. Since their appointment in 1979 (at the ages of 59 and 60 respectively), my mother’s health had declined to the point where she was nearly bed-ridden (she would pass away twenty months later, in the Spring of ’87).
When it came to handling things like hurricane relief, it probably didn’t matter. That was my father’s gig in any case.
For those who don’t know, one of a home missionary’s primary jobs is to make sure the people who need help in the wake of a disaster get it.
From wherever it’s available.
Over two million people were evacuated in the face (and wake) of Elena, more than half of them in Florida. The Panhandle was the hardest hit area of the state and, though the population base is small, the evacuations along the Gulf of Mexico were almost ubiquitous. Small population base, sure, but that only meant a small support base as well.
In that environment, my Dad, the ex-carny, was in his element.
Give him a problem to solve–in this case, how to get needed supplies, mostly blankets and canned goods, from a mix of willing and somewhat reluctant suppliers, to the shelters (mostly churches and high school gyms) in the small towns twenty and thirty miles inland (just off the floodplain of the Apalachicola Bay)–and he would make it happen.
Of course, there had been some long and short-term preparation. We were living in Florida, after all. Hurricanes come with the scenery.
But the scale of Elena, lingering and lingering, constantly changing directions, losing force before it retreated into the Gulf and gathered for another push, made it a tough challenge.
Let’s just say many went without.
Those who got help, mostly got it from my father. I didn’t hear that from him. I heard it from all the people in Baptist circles who, when I was introduced as his son, asked me to personally thank him for what he had done, in one small town after another. I heard it a dozen times in church settings (all the more remarkable because I had stopped going to church except for special occasions like the Thanksgiving Dinners my friend Lillian Isaacs, the person who started the first faith-based Literacy and Citizenship programs in the United States, used to invite me to at First Baptist of Tallahassee–she invited me not least because I was my father’s son), some of them literally two decades after the fact.
Always the same:
“If it hadn’t been for him…”
My dad never spoke much about it except to shake his head whenever he remembered the reprimand.
The reprimand came from the Florida Baptist Convention a few weeks after the shelters had been emptied and people returned to their homes. (Dad had caused many of the shelters to be opened in the first place because, as the home missionary in a region where, in those days at least, Southern Baptists probably outnumbered all other faiths and denominations combined, he was best positioned to provide information to pastors and church boards who otherwise would have had little idea of the scale of the immediate need, not to mention assure them that blankets and food would be delivered, even if he didn’t yet know from where, no matter how many refugees they took in–there are times when being an ex-con man comes in handy, even in the service of the Lord).
The leadership of the Florida Baptist Convention took a dim view of missionaries who used their discretionary funds to do things like purchase blankets for people turned out of their homes. They weren’t really fond of doing it for church members. And they were especially not fond of doing it for just anybody who needed it.
It was all part of a new attitude inside the hierarchy of a church body that, like most Protestant denominations, had been famously non-hierarchical for most of its existence. (Just as an example, the church I was raised in, in another part of the state, split four times before I was thirteen, always over matters of hair-split doctrine–such arguments are the Protestant’s version of “Don’t Tread on Me.”)
The new hierarchy was going to do what all hierarchies do and restore order. In this case to things like disaster relief and prison ministries. Henceforth, my dad was told, before any money was spent, funds would be doled out through proper channels only, with all appropriate forms signed in triplicate.
Meaning henceforth, all aid would be distributed to the “right” people, through the “right” channels.
My dad was enough of an old Carny to know that meant after the right palms were greased.
Sort of like the Midway.
Or your average friendly government bureaucracy.
It was a small incident. Everything was smoothed out at the national office in Atlanta, where Dad still had friends. He was allowed to work past my mother’s death and serve the ten years that provided a small pension and cheap medical insurance (which he paid for another twenty years, until he cancelled it nine months before he had a stroke. the implications of which are still with me).
But it was redolent of larger issues, roiling under the surface of the times.
The state convention’s view was already the prevailing one. By the time Dad retired in 1989, it was unchallenged. It was all part and parcel of a new “Conservative” takeover of the church, the formal part of which Dad had witnessed at a National Convention–in Houston, as it happened, at the old Astrodome–which, among other things, would lead to being hog-tied to the Republican Party from 1980 onward (contributing to the humiliating defeat of one of our own and a dark turn from which the country has not recovered, which is another story for another day) and a marked de-emphasis on prison ministries.
My dad had an opinion about that, too. He told it to anyone who would listen.
“If we’re not there, someone else will be.”
Maybe something worth thinking about the next time you hear about a terrorist who converted to radical Islam–or Marxism–in an American prison.
So he had to settle for winning the Battle of Hurricane Elena….and not being forgotten by those who told me, all those years later, “If it hadn’t been for him….”
But every time there’s a major hurricane, and the inevitable petty politicization swirls all around, I always think about Dad and send up a prayer for whoever is fighting the good fight now–irrespective of their faith or lack thereof–and dare to hope that maybe this time, we’ll get it right.
Thinking of Houston, then, and knowing where Dad would be, tonight, if he could…