Church leaders visit 'helping hands' who are relieving suffering in Louisiana


Five Church leaders, including two apostles, journeyed to flood-ravaged Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and environs Sept. 3 and 4, where they met with some of the 7,000 “Mormon Helping Hands” volunteers from a dozen or more states helping muck out homes and otherwise assist victims.

President Russell M. Nelson, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, came with Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of that quorum. Accompanying them were Elder Richard J. Maynes of the Presidency of the Seventy; Bishop Dean M. Davies, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric; and Sister Neill F. Marriott, second counselor in the Young Women general presidency. (Sister Marriott is a Louisiana native herself, hailing from Alexandria, and came with her husband, David Marriott, to Louisiana on Church business that would happen the following weekend.)

Elder R. Randall Bluth, Area Seventy, who lives in Baton Rouge, accompanied the visiting leaders to area locations.

They visited a food bank in Baton Rouge that had been displaced by flooding from storms that hit the area beginning Aug. 11. There, they made a substantial donation of money and food.

They toured one of four makeshift “command centers” set up at LDS meetinghouses.

They went to a Baptist church in the nearby city of Gonzales, where “Mormon Helping Hands” volunteers — children and adults, males and females wearing yellow T-shirts — were stripping tons of flood-ruined material from the interior.

And they went to work sites, where they comforted and encouraged flood victims benefiting from the services of the volunteers.

Food bank

At a temporary location for the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, the LDS leaders met with the city’s mayor, Kip Holden, and with Mike Manning, president and CEO of the food bank.

“I woke up on a Sunday morning preparing to do distributions in response to the flooding and found 4 feet of water in our facility,” Mr. Manning recounted. “So we lost basically our offices, lost over 500,000 pounds of food, and we lost all of our forklifts and our rolling equipment with the exception of one truck they were able to rehabilitate.”

By the following Tuesday, the food bank was back in operation in temporary quarters, Mr. Manning said. “We’ve been bringing in food and distributing it ever since, just like we did before, on a daily basis, but on a different pace with rented equipment and with tired people.”

President Nelson replied, “We’re so grateful for the work you’re doing, and we’d like to facilitate your excellent work to some extent.”

On behalf of the Church, Elder Ballard then presented Mr. Manning with a check for $50,000. Then, Bishop Davies read a letter stating that three semi-truck loads of food, over 80 percent of it coming from the Church’s own storehouses, would be delivered to the food bank on Thursday.

“This contribution is made possible by individual donations from many members and friends of the Church,” he read. “They have responded with compassion to the invitation to give generously to the relief of those who are impacted by natural disasters and other hardships here and throughout the United States.”

Mayor Holden then presented President Nelson with a certificate making him an honorary mayor of Baton Rouge and with a cap emblazoned with the slogan “Baton Rouge shall rise again.”

Lifting up victims and volunteers

At the Church’s Zachary Ward meetinghouse in Baker, command center director Andy Maas explained to the visiting Church authorities the volunteer operations.

Workers come in from many surrounding states to give their services, he said. Teams receive work orders to go to various homes and other locales, where they “gut” the structures, stripping the framing of drywall and taking out furniture and other items that were contaminated in the flooding.

The debris is stacked on the streets at curbside to await picking up by crews with heavy equipment dispatched by the municipalities. In some areas, streets almost resemble landfills because of the extent of the stacked debris.

The service is provided free of charge, Brother Maas said, to needy residents who request it. He said donations of clothing and other supplies have flowed in spontaneously to the meetinghouse from those who wanted to help. There they have been sorted to assist people who come in and might be in need of specific items.

“Without the prayers of the people, there’s no way we could have done all this,” said Brother Maas’ wife, Lindsey, to the visiting Church leaders.

Elder Ballard replied that the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles meet each Thursday in the Salt Lake Temple. “This last Thursday, we had your names on the prayer roll, and the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve prayed for this effort on your behalf.”

A tearful Sister Maas replied, “It’s amazing! I don’t know how to explain it, but you feel it! We’ve been sustained and lifted up. Thank you for praying for us.”

“Well, you’re doing the job, so it’s working!” Elder Ballard remarked.

Latter-day Saints are not the only ones helping. A sense of mutual caring and proverbial Southern hospitality pervades the flood-ravaged area.

At the Zachary Ward command center, Anna Luke came to the meetinghouse from the New Beginnings Church of God next door. She saw three LDS Church members outside preparing lunch for workers and said, “I didn’t know y’all had your own food.” She had come, she said, to invite the LDS Church to send its workers next door for jambalaya and fried fish. She was a volunteer herself who had come from Houma, Louisiana, to give her services to the New Beginnings congregation, whose building had been damaged in the flooding.

Brother Maas told the visiting Church leaders that a fire station in the community had incurred damage from the flood. He said that those managing the “Mormon Helping Hands” effort had been approached with requests to assist crews from the fire station who were so busy assisting others they had not had time to attend to flood damage at their own homes.

Giving and receiving service

From the command center at the Zachary Ward building, the visiting Church leaders went to some local work sites.

They visited the home of John and Liz Hill, whose home was being gutted by “Mormon Helping Hands” from the Jackson Mississippi Stake.

“We were in the water with two grandchildren, one 4 years old and one 9,” Mrs. Hill told President Nelson and Elder Ballard in recounting the events of the flooding. “We lost two cars. We got out in a boat and were transferred to another boat, then to two trucks. Then it was walk, walk, walk, and we finally got to our daughter’s house in Hamden. We stayed there until about 2 o’clock in the morning. Her residence started to flood, and she got 8 feet of water. A friend took us to our son’s house. That’s where we’ve been ever since.”

After visiting work sites in Baton Rouge, the Church leaders drove to neighboring Gonzales, where the St. Amant Baptist Church had sustained extensive flood damage. An immense pile of debris in front of the building told the tale, with “Mormon Helping Hands” volunteers from Chattanooga, Tennessee, dragging out more debris and adding to the pile.

“It’s wonderful to see people like you help other people,” senior pastor Melvin Meister told President Nelson. “That’s what this country was built on: people helping people. We read about it in history, talk about it, and here it’s happening today.

“This is putting us back to how it was when I was a kid.”

On the evening of Sept. 3, at the Baton Rouge stake center, a devotional was held with the proceedings carried to three other meetinghouses for Church members who were flood victims.

President Nelson on behalf of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles invoked an apostolic blessing that the local residents would “endure through this season of deprivation and struggle with a stronger testimony that you are children of God, created in His image for a divine purpose.”

At the meeting, Elder Maynes said he had noticed that “those who have been receiving service have been doing it in such a humble, sweet way, with smiles on their faces and gratitude in their hears, and those who have been giving service have been doing it with those exact same attributes.”

He said it is love that motivates such an attitude, just as it was out of love that God gave His only Begotten Son to bring everlasting life to those who believe in Him.

Sister Marriott reflected after returning home from the meeting: “With the flood on my mind as we entered the ravaged homes, I soon felt a different sort of flood, one of gratitude and amazement from the victims as I watched volunteers efficiently and cheerfully clearing out debris in the destroyed houses. I delighted in the view of an army of yellow-shirted volunteers — 1,300 strong — reverently seated in sacrament meeting ready to serve when the meeting ended. One home owner, looking around at all the ‘Mormon Helping Hands’ workers taking down her sodden walls, said quiety, ‘It feels like the flood brought a cleansing.’ ”

Harrowing and heroic accounts

In interviews prior to the devotional some Church members shared harrowing and heroic accounts of their experiences with the flooding.

Virginia Ferguson, Baton Rouge 3rd Ward, said she and her husband, Jason, were returning home from the wedding reception of their son, Andrew, on Aug. 13, when they saw neighbors carrying out household items from their homes.

The Fergusons got their canoe to help. With floodwaters rising in their neighborhood, they enlisted the help of their recently returned missionary son, Christopher, who brought their kayak. Later Sister Ferguson’s sister, LaDawn Hinkston, and a youth in the neighborhood, Joseph Sant, joined the effort

The Fergusons rescued an estimated 10 families the first day, helping them out of their flooded homes and driving them to shelters or other locations.

“People saw what we were doing, so they lent us more boats,” Sister Ferguson said. “We ended up with three canoes and two kayaks.”

Someone else donated a mattress and an inflatable boat to add to the fleet. Thus they ended up being part of the “Cajun Navy,” a figurative name for all the people in the area collectively who were using boats to rescue flood victims.

The Ferguson group rescued a woman who was confined to a hospital bed in her home. With help from others, they were able to lift her into a wheelchair. A 9-1-1 call failed to summon an emergency vehicle and they drove around for hours before finding a shelter that could take her.

Sister Ferguson said she had not learned what happened to the woman, despite having twice been back to the house, which is unlivable now.

“My husband knocked on the door of a man whose wife was out of town,” Sister Ferguson said. “At that point in time, his cars were ruined. He had two babies under 2 years old, and he had several dogs and cats. He said, ‘Yes, I’ve got to get out of here, but I can’t leave my animals.’

“He was in total desperation with these two babies. [Without help], what would he have done?”

Ina Aucoin of the Zachary Ward said she and her husband, Randy, requested help through “Mormon Helping Hands.”

A team of six proselytizing missionaries who were involved in the clean-up efforts were dispatched to do the work, but they went to the wrong address and ended up at the home of Brother Aucoin’s neighbor, a friend for many years.

“My husband realized they went to the wrong house, but he dared not pull them off of that house, because he understood and knew that the Lord wanted them there,” Sister Aucoin said.

“So the owner of that house came over in tears to talk to my husband and said the whole while those missionaries were there, the whole atmosphere in his house changed,” Sister Aucoin recounted. “He said he didn’t know what that feeling was. He said that before he came over, he had called his friend, a Mormon he has been taunting for years about being a member of the Church, and apologized.”

She added, “My house went under. We lost just about everything. And that’s OK. I’m good with that, because I know the Lord is doing His work through this.”

Just before the devotional began, Sister Aucoin told a friend her husband was not with her because he was out helping flood victims. When it came time to go to the meeting, he had said, “I can’t leave these people.”

Sacrament meetings

On Sunday morning, Sept. 4, three sacrament meetings were held at each of four separate meetinghouses in the area for the thousands of worker volunteers and for the combined membership of wards in each of the buildings. Each meeting was presided over by one of the four visiting General Authorities.

The sacrament meetings amounted to testimony meetings, with certain leaders invited to share experiences they have had in alleviating the suffering from the disaster.

At one of the meetings, in the Baton Rouge stake center, one of the speakers was Stirling D. Pack Jr., Houston Texas Region disaster coordinator for the Church. Brother Pack spoke of having been at the Gonzales meetinghouse the previous weekend where he assisted a distressed mother and her little boy who came in to receive clothing and basic items.

“I walked in a room with him,” Brother Pack said. “We picked out a blanket and he held it up. I took his photograph. Then we went into the next room. It was a room of toys. He picked up a Star Wars book, and he said, ‘Mama, can I have this?’ ‘And she said, ‘Yes, you can.’

“He held it close to him for just a minute, and then he said, ‘Mama, I won’t take anything else, so the other children who come can have something.’

“I thought to myself, ‘What a wonderful, wonderful experience.’ We all have something within us, that special something that we can share, our testimony of Jesus Christ, through our example, through our faith, through this. I testify to you that the Church will move forward in this area in ways that are not yet foreseen by us, but the Lord knows His own.”

After the meetings, Bishop Robert W. Muench of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge and David C. Aguillard, executive director of Catholic Charities for the diocese, visited with President Nelson, Elder Ballard and other Church leaders at the Baton Rouge stake center. They discussed relief efforts and the need to work together for religious liberty and to strengthen the family.

“We thank you and we thank the God who sent you,” Bishop Muench said. “The enemy would like to divide us. I thank you for making the church visible to those who are drowning not by the flood waters, but by missing why we are here.”

In agreement, Elder Ballard said, “We must fight for faith.”

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