Coffee Chronicles – Part Four – It Happened After Katrina

Image                “Love Knows No Bounds.” Somehow those words seem appropriate for the following, which is a true story. It involves drinking coffee, which is my excuse for including it here. It happened 10 days after Katrina hit. This true story takes place in Bay St. Louis, MS, on the Mississippi coast, about two blocks offshore, behind the then destroyed Catholic cathedral. The date was early September, 2005, a week or so after Hurricane Katrina.

Image                Cyril, Jesse, and George were friends. They had grizzled and unshaven faces. They were drinking coffee early one morning, a Saturday, about a week after Katrina hit. They were sitting at a makeshift table under a large revival tent, on a ball field just off the ocean, in what’s left of Bay St. Louis, on the Mississippi coast. Bay St. Louis is a place where Katrina changed the coastline a lot, destroying a four-laned highway in places. Katrina made miles of rubble – like in London during the war – and reminded everyone that trees aren’t supposed to be splintered and cock-eyed and filled with torn, twisted bed sheets and pieces of rug. It looked like pictures of Heroshima in Bay St. Louis after Katrina hit, plus add cars stuck in the few trees standing, cars and trucks piled on top of one another in ditches, and huge gambling casino barges lying on top of motel buildings. It was so bad that you couldn’t tell where streets were located any more.

Image               These three unshaven men were drinking coffee under a big tent, set up by some nice Christians from California. That’s where I met them. I was taking a break from cleanup work. They were sipping hot coffee at a table on the grass under the tent, beside other tables filled with Mexicans, church teams, police officers from Virginia and New York and other states, SWAT team guys from California dressed in black, and other assorted good guys, eating breakfast. These three old men looked as likely as any to sit down with. Their names were Cyril, Jesse, and George. They were obviously local people.

Until recently, Cyril had owned a big wonderful house in New Orleans, 60 miles west. He had decided to stay in Bay St. Louis for the time being until he figured out what to do. He had the most charming accent. He spoke like someone talking Spanish or French, only it turns out to be English. He was new friends with Jesse and George. He said he was not Cajun – but his mother was. He had a twinkle in his eye when he said it, because of course he was Cajun. However, he looked like a rich movie star. He was the best dressed of the three and had a Catholic medal around his neck, kind of like a Mafia boss. A former mover and shaker in New Orleans, I suspectd. Cyril had only polite things to say about the mayor of New Orleans. We talked about Cajun weddings, Louisiana shrimp, coffee with chicory, and garfish steak.

Jesse was from Bay St. Louis, which locals just call the Bay. He had gotten a call from his daughter a couple weeks ago just before Katrina hit. She told her dad, who had never left for any hurricane before, to leave. She must have used powerful words, because he left – and lived. Now he is back, helping his friends who still have houses to clean up. He – also until recently – owned a big wonderful house right on the shore, a couple blocks from where we were sitting. Jesse had not shaved, just like the old-timers who do not shave back at Riley’s dairy bar on Saturday morning, in Nettleton where I am from. I thought Jesse would fit in well with John Travis Whitlock or Joe Hester or Flois Conn. Jesse had personal weight, the weight of a person who has lived and loved a lot. His barely visible whiskers were mostly silver.

Image               Jesse’s house was right on the beach. It was near the bridge that crosses the ocean between Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian. There was nothing left of that bridge but the huge concrete bases, looking tiny now and jutting up forlornly, going across the bay two by two. The whole distance of concrete roadway on top of the bases was gone; disappeared, just the same as the wooden planks and entire decks on all the nearby ocean piers had disappeared, leaving nothing but pilings sticking up out of the water. Now Jesse’s house, like the bridge, was only a slab of concrete and memories. Not far from us the ocean was flat across the bay. The waves rolled in quietly. It was hard to believe they had been thirty feet higher than now, and raging.

George had the third ‘until recently.’ He too, until recently, had a big, wonderful and old house, about a block and a half from the beach, built in the 1870’s to withstand hurricanes. It did withstand hurricanes…until recently. It had timbers in the bottom of it that were two feet by two feet thick. Katrina moved the entire house a foot to the west. George claimed that it was Bay St. Louis that moved a foot to the east, but Cyril and Jesse didn’t think so. A very little of George’s house was left. Many houses had been swept completely away, leaving concrete slabs and nothing more but an occasional two feet of bent pipe sticking up.

I asked them about Eddie the mayor. Eddie the mayor was at that moment fast asleep over in the fire station. The firemen had told my mayor, Brandon, that Bay St. Louis’s mayor, Eddie, had stayed up late in meetings the night before with FEMA and the like, but that he would wake up soon. Brandon at that moment was waiting on Eddie to wake up, so that Eddie could tell our work crew where he would like us to work. Did Cyril, Jesse, or George think Eddie would be re-elected? George opined that Eddie could have the job of mayor as long as ever he wanted it.

Jesse said that Eddie had reinstated himself. He said that Eddie had lost his standing with him back when Ivan came through, because Eddie had told everyone to leave town for Ivan. Jesse said Eddie got that one wrong. Ivan wasn’t anything. But, said Jesse. Eddie got Katrina right. So he was reinstated.

I had heard that one of several firemen from Vicksburg was staying in the local firehouse – along with a host of other firemen from as far away as FDNY – the Fire Department of New York City – and it had taken this fireman a week to realize that the guy in shorts and flip-flops talking on the phone all the time was in fact the honorable Eddie, mayor of Bay St. Louis, who had ridden out the storm with the local firemen right there in the firehouse. Yeah. That was Eddie all right.

Image                Some children from Bay St. Louis had written letters to this FDNY fireman and his buddies back after 9/11. The firemen in New York City had been very blessed by the children. They were from a second grade class at the elementary school in Bay. That was in 2001. Now, in September of 2005, after Katrina, those firemen came to the Bay to help out. They brought an old red antique fire truck with them, and gave it to that second grade class of kids, who were now in the seventh grade. The kids gave it to their town. I saw it sitting by the Bay fire station where Eddie was still asleep.

Eddie had stayed with the firemen and policemen when Katrina hit. The firemen and policemen were still in town because they had been getting the last civilians out of town till the last minute. All of them were in the firehouse/police station building. They had to go to the top floor of the building when the ocean had risen 35 feet above its normal level, flooding the whole coast and flooding the building as well.

I told about my team, in RVs next to the firehouse. We were made up of a few Pentecostals, Baptists, and mostly Methodists, plus our own mayor, Brandon, who was big friends with Eddie. I let it slip that I was a Methodist pastor; didn’t mean to. They didn’t hold it against me. I told them Nettleton was right below Tupelo. I told them that I used to drink coffee at Johnny’s Drive-in in Tupelo, hanging out with people who knew Elvis. One time Elvis was in Johnny’s Drive-in with the chief of police and some friends, and it got to be midnight, and Elvis didn’t want to drive back to Memphis so late at night. The chief offered Elvis a bed in his establishment. So Elvis spent the night in the jail and left the next morning in his Cadillac. Cyril and Jesse and George allowed as how that may be where we got the tune “Jailhouse Rock.” Maybe so. Maybe so.

We didn’t happen to mention Jesus’ name much, just a little. But He was there the whole time at that table with us. Cyril, Jesse, and George know Him for sure. Jesse said he couldn’t cry over any of this, except one time he almost did. A relief worker had come to help Jesse, and was looking around at the devastation, and had begun to shed tears. As I shook hands with these men, hearing them express their gratitude for our coming and their pleasure in talking to me, it dawned on me that they are all still very rich men, Cyril and Jesse and George. They have merely lost every material possession they had. But they are still very wealthy in what counts. It’s not the money they still have. It’s courage. Love. Stuff like that. See, for us after Katrina down where the damage was, love was let loose big time. In fact, I saw that love can indeed cross all bounds. Yes. Once in a while, we see that love truly is meant to have no bounds.Image

Don’t Give Up!

“Anyone who wants to come to God must believe that there is a God and that He rewards those who sincerely seek him.” – Hebrews 11:6.

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An old man was wandering in the desert, dying of thirst. In the middle of nowhere, he ran across an old timey water pump. Beside the pump was an old coffee can, filled with water, covered with a plastic lid. There was a note lying on top of the lid, held in place by a rock. The note said,

You’ve got to prime the pump.
You must have faith and believe.
You’ve got to give of yourself
Before you’re worthy to receive.

The old man knew how those old pumps work. There is a leather sealing washer in the throat of the pump. When you push the pump handle up and down, the leather washer moves inside, up and down. If the leather is dry, there is no suction, and this is where priming comes in. You must prime the pump – pour water down its gullet until the leather washer swells up and gets tight in the throat of the pump. Then you must continue to pump the handle. Each time you pump, you move the water in the pipe upward, about a foot each stroke.
If the water is 200 feet below ground level, it will take 200 strokes to lift the water to you. If you quit in the middle, the water gradually goes back down the pipe. You must keep up a sustained pumping until the water at last reaches the mouth of the pump. Out pours the cold, clear water! Once you have gotten the water all the way up, it is easy to keep the suction. No more priming is needed. You can get water with each stroke.
The old man had a choice: drink the water in the can, and hope to make it across the rest of the desert with an empty waterbag, leaving no water behind for the next person; or risk everything on priming the pump. The old man decided. With trembling hands he poured a little bit of water into the pump; then a little more, until finally the leather caught. He pumped and pumped, primed and primed.
Just as he had used the last of his priming water, he felt a clunk in the pump handle as he stroked. He knew he was now solidly pulling water! He pumped and pumped, hot and exhausted, but not quitting until finally out came cold, clear water in gushes and gushes. He quenched his thirst. He filled his waterbag. Also he filled the can, carefully putting the note back in place under the rock for the next desperate visitor.
With God, sometimes you must risk absolutely all you have. What if it took exactly 200 strokes to the water, and you stopped at just 199? So don’t give up. Keep on. Your hope in God won’t be in vain.