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An Iowa man who had just earned a doctorate degree in leadership and management put his skills to work in a real-world way by helping arrange relief efforts for Katrina evacuees staying in a small Mississippi town.

Merrill Oster says he was motivated by his Christian faith to travel to Brookhaven, Miss., to his uncle’s church, to see how he might lend a hand. The man ended up helping with myriad efforts to assist New Orleans refugees – even preaching at the pastor-less church on Sunday.

Oster returned home to suburban Chicago – his hometown is Cedar Falls, Iowa – Monday after spending six days in Brookhaven. He now is networking with about 50 churches in the Chicago area to help get more assistance to the churches in Mississippi that are hosting evacuees.

The businessman noted linking churches with resources to churches in need is more effective than waiting for a government program.

“Making contacts direct – church to church, individual to individual – is producing the delivery of services much more quickly than government agencies can do it,” Oster told WND. “We’re really meeting some needs that are urgent.”

When Oster got to Brookhaven there were 250 evacuees staying at Easthaven Baptist Church. By the time he left Mississippi, there were 150 still at the facility.

Besides Easthaven Baptist, there are four other churches in town hosting evacuees, Oster said. Brookhaven is about 100 miles north of New Orleans.

Oster, who is nearing retirement, recognized that temporary housing would be a serious need, so he organized the donation and purchase of travel trailers.

“I found 14 trailers in Cedar Falls, Iowa,” Oster explained. Though he had identified several trailers in Mississippi, by the time he arrived they had been taken. “The prices had skyrocketed,” he said.

The Iowa trailers cost $20,000 each – funds Oster is currently raising from churches and individuals.

Oster also spearheaded a plan to find more permanent homes and jobs for evacuees.

“We found five houses down there we’re cleaning up and getting ready,” he said. “We turned the keys over to the first family last Friday.”

A caravan of travel trailers from Iowa is scheduled to arrive in Brookhaven this week. Originally, Oster wasn’t sure where the trailers were going to be able to park, but it turns out a church member owns a former trailer park that was quickly cleaned up and made ready for the RVs.

“It’s like God had this resource sitting waiting for us,” Oster said.

The businessman mentioned another instances where he saw God’s hand at work: After securing the houses for evacuee families, he had no way to furnish them.

“I told the local guys: ‘Now we’ve got to get furniture,’” he explained. “They told me: ‘No you don’t; there’s a truckload of furniture sitting out back right now. We had no idea what to do with it.’”

Said Oster: “So we had furniture before we had houses to put it in.”

Oster emphasized the jobs element, saying the residents of Brookhaven will help people get employment in the area so they can get back on their feet.

Though there was an early plan to rent homes for volunteers that traveled to Brookhaven to help out, those people will stay in the church with the evacuees so the homes can be used for Katrina victims.

Oster said many of the leaders of the church were busy dealing with their own hurricane-related problems in the early days, which left a need for someone from outside to organize relief efforts.

He says when he arrived in Mississippi he was able to think more long-term and work on the housing issues as the locals continued to minister to the immediate needs of the evacuees.

Oster says it was a miracle the untrained emergency-relief volunteers from Easthaven were able to meet the needs of hundreds of evacuees so well.

“My role was to help them develop a model for how we can go from ‘here’ to temporary housing,” he said. “We focused on both the houses in the area we could clean up and the travel trailers.”

Oster deflected any credit he might take in organizing relief.

“It’s the local church volunteers who have been side-by-side with these families for two weeks now,” he told WND.

Oster said those who want to help with relief in Brookhaven can send a donation to:

Easthaven Baptist Church
Designate the Homes of Hope Fund
Attention: Phil Turner
P.O. Box 882
Brookhaven, MS 39602

“My total motivation is to serve the Lord,” Oster explained. “That’s just the natural response of a Christian – to give back.”

Wrote Oster in an update from Mississippi sent to his e-mail list: “Since the hurricane, the size of the choir has doubled; workers are showing up who had not been in church for weeks; and tired volunteers are rejoicing in the feeling that the Holy Spirit is at work both in the church and in the lives of those they serve. The Methodists showed up Saturday night to relieve the tired Baptists from their kitchen duties as they served their Catholic and Presbyterian evacuee friends.”

Related stories:

Tales of horror from New Orleans

Report: Louisiana blocked Red Cross

RVs donated for homeless

Louisiana churches link arms in relief

Boys’ lemonade stand raises $1,000

Churches rise to answer South’s call

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