Wednesday, August 31, 2005

An Open Letter from Biloxi

Shari Prestemon, Executive Director of Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi, sent this open letter on the impact of Hurricane Katrina.

Dear friends-

Over the last few days your messages of care and concern have poured in by email, and in some cases by phone. Thank you. It has been a stunning reminder of the power of God to hold us together even when the very fabric of our lives is being ripped apart.

Indeed that is how this experience of Hurricane Katrina feels... as if everything has been ripped to shreds --- homes, landscapes, and hearts.

I have never experienced such a thing before, and feel inadequate to the challenge that lies before me personally and before Back Bay Mission as a ministry. But I am strengthened and humbled by your embracing love and your offers of help and funds.

It has become humanly impossible for me to respond individually to the mass of emails I am receiving. But I wanted to write this joint message to share what I know at this point. Some of you will have already received some of this information, and for that I apologize.

First, many of you have been concerned about my personal well-being. I was able to evacuate on Sunday afternoon with two friends (Bruno and Linda Schroeder) and came to Selma, Alabama, where I am staying in a hotel and have been safe. I learned today that my home in Ocean Springs is still standing. For this I am enormously grateful. I will leave Selma tomorrow to attempt to get back to the Coast, so that I can check out my house for myself, and of course, so that I can see what has occurred with Back Bay Mission's campus and begin the process of re-imagining the Mission's ministry for this entirely new time in the life of the Gulf Coast.

Here's what I know at this point:

1) The devastation on the MS Gulf Coast (as well as other places) is entirely devastating. Thousands and thousands of homes have been destroyed, leaving tens of thousands suddenly homeless. East Biloxi, where the Mission is located, seems to have received a particularly hard hit. Aerial footage reveals that a huge area of East Biloxi is simply flattened.

2) In addition to structural devastation, the economy of the MS Gulf Coast has been leveled. With many of the casinos destroyed and others receiving major damage, a huge portion of that economy no longer exists. No homes, no jobs... how can a community survive this?

3) Bridges connecting Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis on the western end of the MS Coast, and Biloxi to Ocean Springs to the east, are simply gone.

4) Much of the Coast cannot yet be accessed by car.

5) There is no power, no phone lines, no sewer for anyone, and will not be for perhaps a very long time. The temps have been in the mid to high 90's.

Here's what we don't know:

1) I don't know how much, if any, of Back Bay Mission's buildings have survived the hurricane.

2) I don't know the whereabouts of several of my staff at Back Bay Mission, and fear the worst for some who had decided to stay on the Coast during the storm the last time I spoke with them. The same is true for several personal friends.

3) I don't know how or when BBM's ministry will be able to begin responding in any meaningful way. I only know that we will do our best to respond, and that the shape of our ministry will in some ways now be very different.

Hopefully, tomorrow and the next day I can make my way into Biloxi to assess the damage at BBM's campus, try to locate friends and staff as possible, and begin to think about next steps. To the extent possible, I may also try to make contact with Red Cross and FEMA personnel to let them know of BBM's intent to be of help and service. Since, however, I will have absolutely no way to communicate with the world if I stay on the Coast, I will likely leave the Coast again and travel to some point north where I can access electricity and phone lines, so that I can begin to work with staff of the United Church of Christ , the Mission's Board of Directors, and many Back Bay Mission friends to strategize our response and begin to plan for our needs and those of the community we serve. Then I will return to begin the work that awaits us. For the moment, this seems the most useful, productive way of using time until staff can be re-gathered and ministry re-configured. I expect this will be a two or three-day period before returning again to the Coast.

So many of you have asked how you can help. Others have indicated willingness to travel to Biloxi to assist in the relief efforts. Still others have begun the process of collecting funds. Thank you for all of this, but please, let me offer a few words of caution:

1) Do not attempt to come to the MS Gulf coast at this time. We want you to come eventually and we will need your helping hands over the coming months and likely years. But now is not yet the time. We need time first to make a thorough assessment, connect with FEMA and the Red Cross, consider how we can best be of service, and think about how we can reasonably accommodate groups who do come to the Coast. If you have interest in coming later as an individual or with a group, you may contact Mary Schaller-Blaufuss, executive for Volunteer Ministries of the United Church of Christ at tel. # 216-736-3214. She will keep a running list and will act as our liaison until we are ready to take that role on.

2) Re: financial support. Do not send checks or cash in the mail to the Mission, as the postal system is likely not functioning. We have no way of knowing if our banks are operational, or whether any wire transfers are feasible. For now, hold those precious gifts you collect for us. We will surely need them, there is no doubt, and we hope you will send them in a general, non-designated way so that we can use them best according to the needs in front of us. But please wait for now. I will work to get you information on how to get those dollars to us when it is possible to do so. In addition, please know that the UCC national setting has established a Hurricane Recovery Fund to which you may also contribute in the interest of wider hurricane relief. You can access that information on the UCC website at

3) Stay informed. The UCC is developing a Hurricane Katrina page on its website, and that page will include a link or section dedicated to Back Bay Mission up-dates. I encourage you to seek information there on our status as time goes on. Keep others informed as well. Please feel free to forward emails as I send them to others you know might be interested. It will simply be impossible for us to communicate in as comprehensive a manner as we would wish.

4) Don't forget about us and the LA, MS, AL, and FL Gulf Coasts when the network and cable stations' coverage begins to fade. The needs we have will be enormous and will continue for months and certainly for years.

5) Pray. The basic and spiritual needs of people on the Coast, and of BBM staff, will be enormous. Grief is and will be profound. The challenge of service and ministry in this new context is unfathomable. We need every morsel of faithful healing you can send our way, and we are grateful for the consoling prayers you have already lifted to heaven on our behalf.

I'm sure I have forgotten to share much that you are interested in, and some of you asked very specific questions that may not have been answered here. I will continue to up-date you via email as I am able.

But of course know that over the next two or three days I will have no ability to communicate from the Gulf Coast itself.

Thank you again for all your healing graces and faithful companionship.
It is precious to me and to Back Bay Mission, especially in these times.


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