ELKHART, Ind. (Mennonite Mission Network) – None of Gulfhaven (Miss.) Mennonite Church’s 106 member and regular attendee families escaped sustaining damage from Hurricane Katrina’s harrowing winds. The church’s roof was also badly damaged, allowing the interior to become waterlogged.
But instead of closing their doors or leaving Gulfport, Miss., members of the congregation engaged in what they called an all-out relief and rebuild ministry that brought new members into their church community and strengthened their connections with the Mennonite Church in the United States and abroad.
Pastor Nelson Roth said, “Our giving to mission has increased by six times in the last two years. In that time [when Hurricane Katrina hit], we did reach out to people.”
In the two years since Hurricane Katrina struck Mississippi, Gulfhaven members have hosted more than 1,300 volunteers, cleaned up more than 200 properties, helped to re-build more than 82 structures, including the church building, and welcomed 35 new members.
The congregation has also managed to increase its giving to mission work, like Phil and Christine Lindell Detweiler
and their family, who work through Mennonite Mission Network in South Africa.
“When the church called me here, they wanted to be a Great Commission church and reach out. Those are things that we’ve preached and taught, and it’s in the heart of the people,” said Roth.
For Hazel Hunsberger, a member at Gulfhaven, supporting mission workers abroad was a way of life since childhood, but it hit home hard after her own grandchildren participated in mission trips.
“My granddaughter went on a mission trip to China, and I was just so encouraged that she had done that,” Hunsberger said.
Newly inspired, Hunsberger began to find news ways to connect with the Lindell Detweiler family. She began to send them letters of encouragement and birthday cards, and share information about their work in South Africa with her congregation in Mississippi. The Lindell Detweilers also surprised her with a phone call.
The increased support from Gulfhaven and Hunsberger has encouraged the Lindell Detweilers.
“These are the kinds of divine connections that make our church contacts really meaningful for us,” said Phil Lindell Detweiler.
Gulfhaven now displays prayer requests and updates from the Lindell Detweilers on a bulletin board and the congregation prays for their work regularly.
And Gulfhaven’s overall ministry within its home community and abroad has continued to grow, and the church has welcomed many new members.
Barbara Rippy is one such person. When the storm hit Mississippi, Rippy and her family fled to Arkansas. When they returned, their home had sustained thousands of dollars worth of damage and they were without power.
The church the Rippys had been attending was badly damaged and unable to hold worship services. So, they decided to visit Gulfhaven Mennonite Church and found themselves warmly welcomed.
“The storm took us to Gulfhaven and that was the best thing that came out of the storm. The people there embraced us with love,” said Rippy.
The church helped the Rippys to clean up debris around their home. On March 12, 2006, after attending a membership class that covered Anabaptist theology, Barbara Rippy was rebaptized by Roth.
“We just felt surrounded by a group of loving caring people, and we decided to stay. I felt like being baptized was an important part of being accepted into the church and confessing my faith,” said Rippy.
Since Katrina, a total of 18 new adult members have been baptized.
Roth said, “You don’t want to plan for a relief and rebuild ministry, but it was just there before us so it was a response we had to make. And it just turned out to be a real blessing.”