Sept. 4, 2005

Heading south on Interstate 57, we begin seeing them. Long convoys of military vehicles, line after line of camoflage green trucks snaking south toward the hurricane zone. Open-windowed, unair-conditioned, moving steadily in the right-hand lane, they are filled with clean-cut young men and women. Every time we come upon one, traffic slows.

In the rear window of one vehicle, we see a cardboard sign, hand-lettered, that reads “Show Love.” We honk and wave.

We pull off Interstate 55 in Osceola, Arkansas. There’s only one exit to Osceola. In front of the Shell station by the interstate, we see a sign: “Red Cross shelter” with an arrow. The sign went up today.

Jim Roberts, pastor of First Christian Church of Osceola drives us around town. Osceola, Arkansa, whose claim to fame is a mention in the Huck Finn story. Osceola is Mark Twain’s Plum Point.

Jim takes us to the Osceola Community Center, which has been transformed, literally overnight, into a Red Cross shelter. The center is bustling with people, sorting clothes, food stuffs, books, medical supplies. Everyone is busy. The local Red Cross person staffing the shelter stops briefly to talk with us. She looks exhausted. It’s 3:30 and she hasn’t had time for lunch yet. In the last two days she has trained nearly 90 people to be shelter workers.

There are maybe 40 cots in the shelter so far. Jim tells us they had hoped to receive more from the Red Cross, but they’ve all been sent further south. One of his parishioners is networking in Little Rock, trying to find more cots. They have sheets, blankets, pillows, and towels for hundreds. They need the beds.

More than 100 refugees are camped out in the three local motels. Most have run out of money. These are the folks who had the means to get out of Katrina’s path before the hurricane hit. But they packed for two days. Now they are stranded, perhaps for months, perhaps permanently.

First Christian and the other churches in town have mobilized to take care of these folks. The churches are taking turns bringing in potluck suppers to the Baptist church. Next week, sometime, the Red Cross will take over with the meals. The agency offered to take over this week, but the churches had already worked out a schedule for the week. They want to take their turns. The Red Cross meals will wait intil next week.

I am awed and inspired by the passion of these folks. They are working 24 hours a day, trying to anticipate the needs of their uninvited guests, tracking down medications, formula for a lactose-intolerant baby, undergarments, laundry facilities.

Everyone seems to know one another, but Jim says that’s a recent occurrence, a result of the situation. Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Church of Christ, Assemblies of God, Disciples, and others have worshiped separately here. Now they are all working, praying, and eating together. The town, Jim says, will never be the same.

While we tour the center, a family arrives from Mississippi. A couple with two girls, an older woman in a wheelchair, and an infant wearing only a diaper. While they are being processed, I ask the Red Cross director how they screen newcomers.

“We don’t, really,” she says, “If they are from the affected areas, we’ll take them. We won’t deny anyone food and a place to stay.”

That welcome may well be put to the test in the coming weeks. Jim expects that soon the town will be receiving busloads of refugees from New Orleans, folks who won’t even have cars and a change of clothes. I wonder how long the cheerful determination will hold up. For now, though, it’s a positive experience.

We leave Osceola heartened at the good works happening. We feel comfortable, safe. Things here aren’t so bad.

Of course, we haven’t hit the hurricane zone yet.

Read Sherri’s story about her visit to Osceola on the DisciplesWorld web site.