I hadn’t intended to spend my Saturday when, where, and how I did on January 21, but most of the people I saw throughout the day, hadn’t intended to spend their January 21 the way they did either. A tornado hit Hattiesburg and upward toward Petal during the early morning hours. A swath that covered about 15-20 miles of twisted broken trees or destroyed homes. Not just homes, but businesses, churches, schools, fire departments, and William Carey University.
When I arrived near the campus of William Carey, I parked several blocks away because it was as close as you could get to the campus, for no one was being allowed to come in. They couldn’t get through the debris in their cars. As I made my way through all the brokenness and pieces of life out in the street, I passed businesses that were in shambles, churches that could not be used, homes that no longer existed, and some that were at least holding together enough that they were trying to pick up pieces and push them back in place.
I passed people who were just standing out front of their homes in total disbelief and despair. Others who were going to their neighbors because their place seemed to be intact and they were trying to see what they could do to help someone else. I stopped along the way and visited with some of the folks. Most of them, even the ones who had lost what appeared to be virtually everything, said, “I am so blessed to be here.”
When I arrived on campus, I soon met up with the president of William Carey University, Dr. Tommy King. After talking for a brief time, we began to take a tour of the entire campus seeing destruction in every direction. There were students all around trying to get their things together and find somewhere to go and stay as they contemplated what the next step in life was going to be. It does not take long to realize that school is not going to be open for weeks or months or maybe a year. Almost immediately, Dr. King said to me that we had a few students who were injured but none life threatening and only one in the hospital and no deaths to our university family.
Not too far away from the campus in a residential area, four people had been killed, but when you saw the entire area, you would wonder how in the world did we get through this storm without hundreds of deaths. Truly, many, many people were saying that they were blessed to be alive. Although it is amazing to see and wonder how families could survive the terrible destruction of homes and school, it was equally moving to see the thousands of people who responded to do whatever needed to be done to help the folks who were caught in the storm.
People with chainsaws and rakes and just a kind word, an offer of what can I do to help you, was everywhere around the entire area. Little clusters of students or families gathered simply to pray. While we in Mississippi and for the folks around Hattiesburg, we have seen plenty of storms through the years, but simply because they are numerous and frequent does not make the next one look any better and certainly is not any easier to deal with.
While any gifts that you could send will be used to help with the disaster relief efforts throughout the area where the storm hit, there are enormous and special needs related to the university. William Carey University is a family of thousands made up of students, their families, faculty and staff, administration, and even alumni. The buildings being fixed, restored, or in some cases having to be taken down, are vitally important, but they are not as important as the people who are a part of the university family. Young people who are preparing their lives for missions and ministry, service and teaching. Some who are in medical school at William Carey; others who are working on masters programs and now all of them having to figure out where do we go from here.
As Dr. King and I toured the campus together, one of the most moving experiences for me and I think for him was related to the chapel on the campus there at Carey. It is a beautiful chapel that has only been there for a few years, and it was virtually destroyed. But, while one of the end walls is gone and the front of the chapel is gone and inside there was a pulpit Bible and it was open as though it had not even been touched. It was opened to Psalm 46. Now for anyone who has studied the Psalms and loves the Psalms, Psalm 46 always finds its way into your heart to be one of the favorites. Why? Well, listen to it, and you will understand.
Psalm 46:1 (NKJV), “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” The trouble was real last Saturday and will it continue for the foreseeable future. Yet, the sense and the presence and strength of God with us was and is an even greater reality. Facing the future, the opening phrase of verse 2 states, “Therefore we will not fear.” With the strength of God, along with the love and help of His people, the families all around Petal and Hattiesburg, including the large family at William Carey University that has come from literally all four corners of the world, will realize that God is with us, God is for us, and that God will deliver us.
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.