Lightning may never strike twice in the same location, but hurricanes do.
I was too young at the time to have much recollection of our family’s 1969 trip to the Southern Baptist Convention. Today, my brother Tommy and I are glad we were along for the ride. On the heels of Hurricane Katrina, my mind wanders back to that excursion.
As far as conventions rank, 1969 was not particularly memorable. Southern Baptists, scrambling to find an avenue of “relevant” witness before a nation increasingly divided over civil rights and an unpopular war, believed they had located one. “Training Union,” as that venerable institution was then known, would be renamed “Quest,” an overture to America’s exploding youth culture.
SBC messengers, in a rare expression of dissent, overwhelmingly rejected the proposal, even after learning that thousands of pre-printed “Quest” workbooks would have to be recalled.
Convention leaders were embarrassed, but comedian Jerry Clower would enjoy retelling the episode for years to come: (“I was there but voted agin’ it, ’cause I thought ‘Quest’ sounded too much like a mouthwash.”)
What did become memorable, especially for my grandmother, who traveled to New Orleans with us, was a brief detour through Long Beach, Miss., where my grandfather, F. W. Tomberlin, had been pastor in the 1920s. For two years, he commuted by train from Baptist Bible Institute, later renamed New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
It was the first time my grandmother had ever revisted the town where her husband, having experienced God’s call to the gospel ministry and giving up a promising life of farming in south Alabama, had transplanted a young family that included four small children. My mother, their youngest child, would not be born until years later, long after her parents said goodbye to Mississippi and returned to Alabama.
Three weeks after our famly’s 1969 trip, the meeting place of First Baptist Church in Long Beach was completely destroyed by Hurricane Camille.
Thirty-six years later, their church building was demolished again by the winds and rain of Hurricane Katrina.
Christianity, at its best, knows no cultural, denominational or geographical boundaries. A random Internet search revealed that in the wake of Katrina, the Baptist Church in Bath, Maine–of all places–had “adopted” the First Baptist Church of Long Beach, Miss., as a mission project, and were now collecting money for its neighboring congregation to the south.
I was very grateful for that news, along with the renewed assurance that hurricanes cannot destroy one’s faith, heritage, or The Church itself.
I’m grateful that my grandmother was with us that day in 1969.
I also was relieved when, in 2005, the phone rang and Hal Higdon, my best friend from high school, said that he and his wife were safe in Mobile. Their house near Biloxi was damaged but hopefully salvageable.
I’m grateful to have had a godly grandfather, one who probably preached many times from Matthew 7:24-27. It is the parable about building one’s foundation on a Solid Rock, Jesus Christ, that will withstand any storm.
Temporal structures and situations, mislaid plans, the reshaping of seminaries–or even the winds of sweeping denominational change and reconfigured mission boards–will continue to appear, reappear or be washed away entirely in the storms of life’s adversity and chaos. But the Foundation to which we cling, to which Christians are anchored, will last forever.
Meanwhile, the First Baptist Church of Long Beach–though battered and scarred–will endure and be renewed once again.
So shall we.
Mark Ray is a family counselor in Decatur, Alabama.