By HARRIETTE BRAINARD
BRIDPORT — When the Rev. James Slowey came home to what was supposed to be his surprise 40th birthday party in Picayune, Miss., on Aug. 27, 2005, there was no way he could have predicted the terrifying events of the next few days, let alone the next year.
There was no way he could have known that the following summer he and his family would be sitting down at the dining room table of Tim Franklin, pastor of the Bridport Congregational Church in Addison County, Vermont. Up until the spring of 2006, Slowey and his family knew very little of Vermont and never dreamed that they would take their first airplane trip there.
But then Hurricane Katrina struck his coastal community, some 55 miles northeast of New Orleans, and the world changed.
In spite of the disaster that hit the area around the Gulf of Mexico that weekend late last August, there have been a number of rewarding moments that have been strung together by the development of relationships that never would have been, including the relationship between members of the Bridport church and Slowey’s church in Mississippi.
James Slowey is the pastor of the Harmony Baptist Church in Picayune, a town 55 miles northeast of New Orleans. He lives next door to the church with his wife, Terry, and two children, James Jr., 16 and Amber, 11.
The eye of Hurricane Katrina went directly over Picayune, which saw its population drop from 13,000 to 4,000 as a result of the storm.
Many residents of the region did not realize until it was too late just how severe the consequences might be and there were others who did not want to leave their homes. Plus, for many of the residents of the Gulf Coast, evacuation was not economically feasible.
James Slowey made the decision early on that he was not going to leave his church as there were a number of people in his congregation that were not able to evacuate. There were about 30 people in the church and another 20 in Slowey’s home during the course of the storm.
“I was never so worried about the storm, because there were so many other things to worry about, to deal with — we had to balance all the people coming in and their needs,” said Slowey, who turned 40 last Aug. 27.
“The next morning following the surprise party, people began knocking on our door — shaking, crying because they did not know what to do,” he said. At the Sunday service the next morning, Slowey told everyone, “If you have the ability to leave, then you should leave, if not we will be here for you.”
Preparations got under way.
“At this point we converted the Sunday school to a mini hotel,” Slowey said. “Our own kitchen was D-Day central — it is an open style kitchen and it was here that all the plans were made for the storm and after.”
Electricity went out that Monday morning, and was not to come on again until well over a month later.
Unlike many other areas of the nation, Picayune, Miss., which had 119 churches within a 26-mile radius before the storm, had established a community where different churches have worked together forging a ministers’ alliance. Slowey said this was especially helpful following Katrina, as they were able to figure out the primary needs of the community and how to best serve them in a timely fashion. Each church had a central responsibility — each had something to offer for the common good. Even the police and sheriff turned to the churches to help organize their needs following the storm.
“Relationships have been forged not only within the churches in the community, but in a much wider community — particularly across the East Coast; as one by one groups from these congregations have put aside time to come to the Gulf Coast and help in the reconstruction,” Slowey said.
That’s where Franklin enters the picture.
Tim Franklin, the Bridport minister, had been making efforts to become more directly involved in providing relief to the Gulf Coast, however he was having some difficulty making the initial link with a church in the area. Eventually he was put in touch with Slowey at Harmony Baptist Church.
Franklin asked his congregation if there were anyone willing to volunteer time and money to go help directly in the Picayune community. A group of 10 parishioners spent a week in April in Picayune fixing the church as it had sustained quite a bit of damage, especially to the roof.
Once the group from Bridport had fixed up the church, they also spent time on a neighboring home that had been hit by a tree. Eight months after the hurricane, residents of the Gulf Coast are still living in devastating surroundings. “Most people in the rest of the nation don’t realize that not too much has improved since Aug. 29 — they don’t realize the state everything is still in along the Gulf coast,” Franklin said.
The group under Franklin’s leadership also wanted to help the Sloweys themselves. Franklin saw the selflessness of the pastor working within his community, and wanted to do something for him. The Sloweys had been spending all their energy and resources to help people in the community, instead of their own home and church.
“This was a great opportunity to help, we had a great place to stay and we made a great connection with the people there,” says Franklin. “We never had to buy any food or worry about one thing, the people in the community fed us and took care of us, and were just so appreciative.”
At the end of their stay, Franklin came up with the idea of inviting the Slowey family for a week’s vacation in Vermont, knowing they would not get a vacation otherwise. Franklin raised the funds locally and the Slowey family arrived in Bridport on July 1.
During the family’s seven-day visit they didn’t have to pay for a thing. The Bridport Congregational Church community paid for the airplane flight, gave the Sloweys pocket money and lent them a car. They stayed in the home of a local resident who was away on vacation.
Five Middlebury-area restaurants donated meals.
The trip included visits to the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream factory, Shelburne Museum and Great Escape water park. Slowey said a highlight was a traditional Fourth of July barbeque in Bridport.
James Slowey was used to taking care of others; it was a much more difficult thing for him to get used to someone taking care of him, his family and his congregation. He was especially thankful to Franklin for taking the time to help him.
“We have never had anyone come to serve us, we didn’t know what to do at first — it was a very strange feeling, we have always been used to taking care of and serving our own community, without needing any help.
“One of the most important things for myself, and to help me better serve my own community was that this man (Tim Franklin) that I had never known, forced me to stop and talk to him, take some time for myself to think about everything that had happened,” Slowey continued. “I am so used to going 100 miles an hour in everything that I do, and I never slow down. He was not just concerned about the church, but he was concerned about me as a person. His concern helped me tremendously. It helped me to stop, take some time and to minister to my congregation.”