LAKE CHARLES A few months ago, Shirley Mills would never have imagined deploying with a Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Disaster Relief team to Louisiana. The 73-year-old from Redwater, Texas, was having trouble just walking and breathing.
Mills spent three months in Christus St. Michael hospital in Texarkana battling COVID from October through December 2020, including nine weeks on a ventilator. Her doctor called her his “miracle lady” after she was taken off the machine, telling Mills’ husband he had not expected her to survive.
Rigorous physical and occupational therapy followed. Mills recalled not being able to do more than sit on the edge of the hospital bed in tears as a therapist reminded her of Philippians 4:13, that she could do “all things through Christ.” At first she was only able to drag a leg. The next day she took a step. The following day she managed three steps. Then five. Then nine.
After her discharge, therapy continued at home for months.
When Mills’ friend Debby Nichols asked her to deploy with SBTC DR in early June following record floods in Northwest Louisiana, Mills knew she could not work on a feeding team as she had before. That would be too strenuous.
But she could walk and accompany Nichols as a chaplain and assessor.
Mills and Nichols teamed with Vince Rowe of Gladewater to assess damaged homes off Louisiana Avenue in Lake Charles after massive rainfall generated flooding, deluging an area still reeling from 2020 hurricanes Laura and Delta.
It was not a typical deployment, Nichols told the TEXAN. Southwest Louisiana Recovery established a clearinghouse, assigning homes for assessment and distributing work orders. An SBTC DR recovery crew from Bonham, led by Monte Furrh, was already busy mudding out homes.
Some of the requests for help dated back to Hurricane Laura, Nichols said. When Nichols, Mills and Rowe ran out of homes to assess, they were instructed by the Louisiana Baptist DR incident commander to walk the neighborhoods and offer chaplaincy services.
Assisted by two Michigan Baptist DR volunteers, Carla Strunk and Anita Parks, they began to do just that on June 1, continuing the next day after the Michigan volunteers departed for home.
Instructed not to knock on doors, the teams drove around and walked through neighborhoods, looking for people to talk to.
“We just went down the street. If we saw anyone sitting outside or walking, we stopped and visited with them,” Nichols said.
The team’s first stop on June 1 proved surprising.
A man and woman sat under their carport, looking at their debris-laden yard filled with items dragged outside to dry. Nichols approached with a few plastic bags containing snacks and bottled water.
“Can I bring you something?” Nichols asked.
“Yes, you can bring me some hope,” replied the woman, whose name was Janice.
“I can bring you hope,” Nichols answered, holding up SBDR’s “Hope in Crisis” tract she pulled from a snack bag.
Janice was stunned. The family had suffered damage from Laura, burst water pipes from the winter freeze and now water damage from the floods. The woman’s father had died in December; she had lost her job. Although she was a believer, she admitted that she was struggling.
“This is a God thing,” Janice said. “I can’t believe you brought me this thing that says hope when I need hope.”
Nichols assured Janice that her hope was in Christ as they prayed together.
Balloon animals and the gospel
That day, the teams prayed with 28 people.
“We prayed with everybody. Nobody turned us down,” Nichols said, noting that many were already believers.
Vince Rowe’s talent in making balloon animals attracted the interest of young and older alike.
Intrigued by Rowe’s artistry, two African American men in their twenties walking down McCall Street stopped to chat. Rowe, a church planter and former pastor, had been presenting the gospel using balloon animals since 1999, when he first employed the method on a mission trip to Honduras.
“I jumped out of the truck and asked the guys if they wanted a balloon,” Rowe recalled. He handed the young men a deflated balloon, and one jokingly asked why it hadn’t come with any air.
Rowe replied, as he inflated and then began to twist the balloon into a puppy shape, that people go through twists and struggles in life. Each time he made a twist in the balloon, Rowe mentioned a trial: Hurricane Laura, Hurricane Delta, floods, and so forth.
Finally, displaying the finished animal, Rowe explained that after life’s twists and trials, we can “step back and see how God has shaped and molded us into something he can use.”
Rowe presented the plan of salvation and “both guys got saved in the street.” The young men said they occasionally attended church with their mothers and grandmothers, and Rowe expressed confidence they would now make church-going a habit.
The balloon animals also attracted young Landon and his little sister. Rowe visited with the boy during the morning of June 2. When Rowe asked him who God was, Landon replied, “God is my Father,” and then corrected himself, “God is my first Father.”
Later that afternoon, Landon found the DR volunteers again after school, this time bringing several young friends to get animals.
As Rowe worked with balloons and talked about Jesus, one 11-year-old girl expressed a desire to be saved. After two of her girlfriends explained the gospel further, she prayed to receive Christ.
‘Now she’s a child of God’
It wasn’t just the chaplains who made a spiritual difference in the lives of survivors.
When Furrh’s recovery team mudded out the homes of police officers, one woman, a 28-year-old recent college graduate with a degree in law enforcement, admitted to the volunteers that she had been thinking about the Lord for some time but didn’t know what to ask or what she needed to do to be saved.
“We prayed with her, and she asked Jesus into her life,” Furrh said. “Now she’s a child of God.”
So too is Mike, a homeless man that Rowe met when stopping outside a convenience store on the way back to Texas.
Spying Mike on the sidewalk, Rowe sat down and spoke to him, asking if he knew where he’d spend eternity.
Mike admitted he knew the choices he’d have after death.
“Would you like heaven to be the choice you get?” Rowe asked, explaining the gospel after Mike said yes. Tears streaked the man’s face, flowing down over his tear-drop tattoos, as he placed his trust in Jesus.
Mike’s friend Skillet wasn’t so receptive. He told Rowe he had been raised in a Christian home and his family lived into their nineties, so he believed he had time. Rowe gave Mike a Bible and prayed for the young men before getting back into the vehicle to head home.
SBTC DR Director Scottie Stice confirmed that the Bonham team arrived in Lake Charles on May 23 and stayed till June 1, while the chaplains returned home on June 3.
“We expected a longer deployment, but the work went fast, and Louisiana Baptist DR advised our recovery crews to stand down,” he said, adding, “We were pleased to go to Lake Charles and help the people. It’s been difficult to be a resident of western Louisiana with so many dangerous weather events.”
Of her post-COVID first foray into DR chaplaincy, Mills said, “God places us where we need to be,” adding, “I was not formally trained in chaplaincy, but I am fixing to get trained in it. If [survivors] just get a hug, it helps them. Everybody needs a hug.”