Every week volunteer crews from Tammany Oaks Church of Christ remove trees from damaged houses then build a new roof

MANDEVILLE, La. – Amazing, wonderful things are taking place in a church on the other side of the lake that flooded New Orleans.

Most of the people who have witnessed the events have concluded God himself is at work.

“None of us made this happen,” said Janet Hines, volunteer director of disaster relief for the Tammany Oaks Church of Christ. “From the first day we decided to help the victims of the hurricane, God just took over the operation and enabled us to help more people than any of us could have imagined.”

The church is located in Mandeville, population 60,000, close to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It took the 250 members of the congregation more than two years to put enough money together to construct a new building. They began conducting services there in late July and distributed fliers inviting the surrounding community to attend the church’s open house–scheduled for Aug. 29. That was the day Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast.

“Of course, the open house was dead,” said Ted Vogt, the church’s pastor. “But even before Katrina made landfall, some of the people in our church wanted to respond to the needs of those who would suffer losses from the approaching storm.”

Pastor Ted Vogt

He explained that a few days after the hurricane hit and the flooding began, a group made up of church staff, elders, parishioners and members of another church held a meeting to begin organizing a relief effort.

Hines, who has spent many years doing relief work in Honduras, was at that meeting. Several others with relief work experience also attended.

“My husband Doug and brother-in-law Tim began contacting organizations and suppliers and asking if they could help our efforts,” she said. “What started happening a day or so later was way beyond anything we could ask or think.”

Vogt said news spread by word of mouth that Tammany Oaks Church of Christ had a hurricane relief program and they started getting phone calls from other states.

Aerial view of Tammany Oaks Church of Christ

“Leaders of corporations and organizations from all over called to ask if they could donate to our effort, and before we knew it, we had 18-wheelers packed with everything you could imagine pulling into our parking lot every day,” he said.

The trucks brought food, bottled water, clothing, bedding, medicine, medical supplies, tools, machinery, stoves, refrigerators, washing machines, clothes dryers and just about anything else needed by desperate, destitute hurricane victims. In a few days, as the 18-wheelers kept rolling in, the church had the use of a forklift, pallet jacks, and a small fleet of Penske rental trucks to deliver supplies to needy families and other organizations providing relief.

Volunteer crew preparing for another day of work

To make room for all the supplies, the chairs in the sanctuary were pushed to the side and stacked on top of each other, and the 16,000-square-foot building was converted into a warehouse and dormitory for the many volunteers who began arriving from all over the United States and parts of Canada.

“We are continually amazed that so many people are coming here to help the victims of the hurricanes,” said Tracey Pierce, who manages the receiving, packaging and distribution of all supplies coming to the church. “We know that every person who comes here was sent by God.”

With so many volunteers arriving every day, their needs had to be met too. Shortly after the relief effort was in full swing, showers and laundry facilities were set up for the workers as well as a large makeshift kitchen. Using donated stoves, grills, refrigerators and freezers, volunteer kitchen workers began to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for all who were working to help the victims of the storm.

As soon as the supplies began arriving, the church became a distribution center where needy individuals and families could come to receive food and other necessities, which were neatly packed in boxes by the volunteers. Other workers loaded supplies into cars, vans and trucks and delivered them to places near and far.

Volunteers sort donated items inside Tammany Oaks Church of Christ

Meanwhile, Hines and the other organizers set up a system for sending work crews out. The men and women volunteers wake up at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast, followed by a chapel service that begins at about 7:00 a.m.. Then either Tim Hines or Bret White read from a list of things that need to get done that day and the volunteers decide which tasks they want to do.

The work crews carpool or caravan to anywhere in Louisiana that was ravaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, including New Orleans and faraway Lake Charles. They might remain at a certain location for several hours or several days before returning to Mandeville. When the crews arrive at their assigned sites, they do anything from moving moldy furniture and appliances out of a house to removing muck from the floors, ripping out moldy carpet, flooring, drywall and insulation or removing fallen trees and debris from roofs and yards.

Skilled volunteers also rebuild roofs, repair damaged plumbing, and perform other tasks associated with construction or remodeling. Most volunteer work takes place at the homes of people who have contacted the church asking for help, but Tammany Oaks workers also help out at schools, churches and other larger facilities damaged by the storms.

At the end of the day, most of the work crews return to the church to join the other volunteers for dinner, which is followed by an evening chapel service.

“Most of the volunteers are members of the Church of Christ, but we welcome anyone who trusts Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and believes that the Bible is the word of God,” said White, who came from Valdosta, Ga., to join the effort. “We’ve had some non-Christians helping us too.”

He noted that he and other leaders admonish all volunteers to remember that they are representing Jesus Christ as well as the Tammany Oaks church while they are based there.

Most of the volunteers exemplify an eagerness to work hard and a joyful devotion to the cause.

“The magnitude of this disaster is beyond words,” said Mike Beneditti, from Delaware, Ohio. “Everywhere I look I see the victims and the volunteers lifting up their hands to the Lord, and for all of us who came, there is no greater reward than to look into someone’s eyes and know they really appreciate what we have done for them.”

“God was all over this thing,” said Melanie Turner from the Nashville area in Tennessee. “Our prayers for direction were met almost instantly, and the people we helped were so blessed and amazed we would give up our time and money for them.”

“I will never forget the time I spent here with other servants who selflessly desired God’s will and fulfilled the scripture that tells us to love your neighbor as yourself,” said Danielle Crawford, also from the Nashville area. “I will always remember the tears of joy we were blessed with for our service to those who so desperately needed us.”

“We were all moving in the power of God’s love,” said Starr Knapp, from New York. “I have never before experienced such an overpowering sense of his presence.”

Joyce Morvant, a widow whose house was severely damaged by flooding, expressed her appreciation for the work the volunteers did for her.

“I didn’t know if they were saints or angels,” she said. “I could not believe that they came into my house and worked so hard and asked for nothing in return.”

Louis Jones, an 85-year-old man who had a large tree removed from his roof, agreed.

“They will never know how much it means to all of us that they traveled so far to help,” he said.

At the end of every day, volunteers share their experiences with each other, describing how people of every color worked together in harmony, how grown men wept and hugged the volunteers, how women kissed the workers on the cheek, thanking them for their labors.

“The thing that has impressed me the most about all this is the unconditional love continually being expressed by the members of this church, the volunteers and the people we are helping,” said Tim Hines. “This could not happen without God.”

“God’s presence and provision have just been overwhelming,” added Becky Martin, the church secretary. “I could tell you story after story about how he has met and continues to meet our every need.”

She noted that when the church building was finally completed last summer, she didn’t like it because she thought it resembled a warehouse.

“Now I think it’s the most beautiful church I’ve ever seen,” she said. “It’s beautiful because it’s being used as [God’s] storehouse to demonstrate his love for the people of this region.”

Organizers of Tammany Oaks disaster relief effort. Left to right: Brett White, Tracey Pierce, Janet Hines, Becky Gilbert, Rhonda McMullen, Tim Hines, Patrick Tallant

Assistant secretary Rhonda McMullen agreed.

“God decided to do a work here,” she said, “and he has been doing things in greater ways than any of us could have dreamed.”

So far, Tammany Oaks Church of Christ has provided food boxes to about 3,000 families and has distributed millions of dollars’ worth of supplies to needy households and other relief organizations in Louisiana. In addition, the more than 500 volunteers have provided the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars in free labor. On any given day, 20 to100 volunteers work for the church’s relief effort.

The church’s relief program will continue at least until next spring.

“We welcome donations and volunteers –individuals or church groups,” said Janet Hines. “It’s going to take a long time to repair the damage done by the hurricanes and floods.”

She asked that people contact the church before coming or sending donations. That can be done by phoning (985) 867-9898, addressing a letter to 3700 Hwy 59, Mandeville, La., 70471, or sending an e-mail to [email protected].

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