By Cade Campbell
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light…
Thomas Dorsey, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”
Some through the waters, some through the flood,
Some through the fire, but all through the blood;
Some through great sorrow, but God gives a song,
In the night season and all the day long.
George Young, “God Leads Us Along”
Not long after a powerful EF-4 tornado tore through our town on March 2, 2012, Pastor John Piper wrote an article on Desiring God’s blog reflecting on that event. It was titled “Fierce Tornadoes and the Fingers of God.” As I read Piper’s article, one particular sentence stuck out: “God is always doing a thousand things when he does anything. And we see but a fraction.” That sentence jumped off the screen at me because as I stood in the wrecked rubble surrounding me in Henryville, I already knew from my own encounters with God’s grace, goodness, and sovereignty that it was true.
In August 2005 I was dividing my time between the small town of Monticello in south Mississippi, where I was serving as a youth pastor, and New Orleans, Louisiana, where I had moved part-time with some friends to attend graduate school at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. My weekdays were spent in New Orleans and my weekends were spent in Monticello. In late August 2005 I had just started the semester. I attended one week of classes. Then I drove back to Monticello for the weekend, never dreaming that I wouldn’t be coming back. I had watched the news. I knew a powerful storm had just entered the Gulf of Mexico, but as one of many who have grown up in that region just north of the Gulf, I’d seen storms come and go all my life. I wasn’t expecting very much. It wasn’t until the weekend that I began to see just how bad it could be.
On Saturday (August 27) one of my best friends and fellow seminary student, Jacob Helsley, left New Orleans and stopped over in Monticello to spend the night at my apartment. We got up Sunday (August 28) before church and watched the news. The satellite images showed the monster storm inching closer to land. “I’ve got to get back home to South Carolina,” Jacob said. “And I’m going to try and get further north after today,” I replied. We went and worshiped through the Sunday services. Jacob left that afternoon heading back to his home in Columbia, and after the evening service at my church I got in my car and joined the line of traffic creeping northward, evacuating ahead of the hurricane, inching toward Vicksburg, Mississippi where my parents live. A drive back to their home should have taken me less than an hour and a half. That Sunday night it took me nearly four hours. I made it to my parents’ home around midnight. Katrina hit just a few hours later, making landfall in the early Monday morning hours of August 29.
I rode out Katrina in Vicksburg. We spent that Monday in relative safety, watching the endless rain and wind outside. We lost power sometime that morning, and wouldn’t get it back for several days. We dealt with gas shortages and the sporadic robberies and looting that happened in the wake of the storm. But all in all, we were never in any real danger. My apartment in Monticello took more of a hit. We didn’t get power back there for quite some time, and just about everyone in that area further south of Vicksburg had a much harder time of it. When I finally was able to get back (and even able to drive further south toward the Mississippi gulf coast), the damage and devastation was beyond imagining. Those who hadn’t (or hadn’t been able to) ride the storm out on its edges like I did had suffered and lost and experienced far more.
That included my wife Amy. I didn’t know her yet. We met two years later, but in August of 2005 she was just starting a new semester in Hattiesburg where she was a student at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her parents had encouraged her to come home, to get to Natchez before Katrina hit. But like a lot of college students she decided to stay with her friends. Like me, she never dreamed it would really be as bad as it was. On Monday morning she woke up to the sound of rainfall, and things got progressively worse. She spent a frightened day and night huddled in a friend’s house in the dark, hearing the wind and rain sweeping outside, and watching trees fall dangerously close to where they were standing. Katrina was still a category 1 hurricane when it passed Hattiesburg, and Amy will never forget literally riding it out. Amy’s older brother Chris was able to get to her the next morning and they made their way back to Natchez.
That’s our story of living through Katrina, and it’s hard to believe that it’s really been ten years. It’s sometimes equally hard to believe how much God used the events of those few days to move us where and make us who he wanted. That’s because for both Amy and I the hours spent living through that storm have come to be seen as a watershed moment in both our lives. Katrina, from first to last, was a hurricane in the hand of Christ.
The aftermath of Katrina led me in the months following to a major move. I ended up walking away (for a while) from my plans for seminary. I was offered a position and came on staff at a school in Vicksburg and began teaching full-time. Two years passed, then one evening I attended a revival service at my grandparents’ church, East Fork Baptist. A second cousin whom I rarely saw asked me what I was doing since Katrina. I told her my story, and told her I was living back home and teaching high school. She responded by saying, “If you’re not seeing anyone, you should really meet a girl that lives just down the road from me in Natchez. She just graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. She’s a teacher too.” And so I was introduced to Amy.
While teaching high school I had the opportunity to supply-preach a good bit all over south Mississippi and Louisiana. One afternoon I was called to serve a church just south of Vicksburg on a temporary basis as an interim, preaching on Sunday mornings. Their pastor had been in a horrible accident, was on life-support in Jackson, and if he lived his recovery and rehabilitation was going to take some time. So I began serving the church. Their pastor lived, and we met and became fast friends. His name is Toby Jenkins. A little later (about the time Amy and I were getting married) he and his family moved north to go back to school. Not long after that he was called as the senior pastor of First Baptist Church Henryville, Indiana. Our paths would cross again, leading ultimately to Amy and I moving to Henryville when I came on staff as a pastor there in 2010. We had quit our jobs and moved north to finally restart my seminary education that had been paused five years earlier. I didn’t go back to New Orleans. The winds blew me north along Katrina’s path. I began serving as a pastor alongside Toby and picking up where I left off in seminary at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
All of these threads, these interconnected storylines began to be sewn together in the months and years after Katrina, and in many ways they are not merely events that occurred after Katrina. In a very real sense, like a series of dominoes or railroad tracks that shift to redirect trains in different directions, they all happened as a result of the changes that occurred because of Katrina. Now, don’t get me wrong: That storm was about far more than me and my little life. My story is just one small story in the storm’s wake. There are millions of other things that were all happening as a part of God’s sovereign plan for that storm. We might change Piper’s sentence ever so slightly to read “God is always doing an untold number of things, when he does anything. And we see but a fraction.” God’s plan to lead and orchestrate my life through the storms of life, including a real storm called Katrina (and more recently an EF-4 tornado in Henryville) is just one of the billions and billions of things God has always been doing in his eternal and meticulous and sovereign plan…for his glory and my good.
And so over the next few days I’ll be thinking about those days ten years ago. I’ll watch the anniversary specials on television. I may pick up Doug Brinkley’s book The Great Deluge that tells the history of the storm and its aftermath. Amy and I will remember together what happened in those hours when we were apart. But in a far more specific way, my marking of Katrina’s anniversary will be a celebration not of a storm but of a Savior. It will be a remembrance of the ways and means God used to bring me where I am today. Katrina is one of the many Ebenezers that has been set up as a marker of God’s victorious grace in and over my life, a grace that is marked infinitely more by the blood of Christ than by the flood of a hurricane. As I look back on these last ten years, I don’t hear the sound of wind, rain, or thunder. I hear the soft singing of another song: “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace shall lead me home…”
Cade Campbell, a native of Mississippi, is Associate Pastor for Preaching and Discipleship at First Baptist Church Henryville, Indiana. You can follow him on Twitter at @DCadeCampbell.