The Sounds of Comfort All Around Us

Recently, in telling of my brother Charlie’s death, I told of the tragic death of our home pastor’s teenage son some years back. I had asked him if in the “comfort” of friends anyone said anything truly unusual. He told how a lady said to him, “I know exactly how you feel because when my son went off to college, I cried and cried.”

A friend who read that wrote me about the time her little daughter died. I’ve changed the names, but otherwise, this is the letter verbatim.

“When our three-year-old daughter died suddenly, I heard some strange comments. I know these friends meant well, but these comments were less than comforting.

“3. ‘You can have another baby.’ We didn’t WANT another baby–we wanted Kathy!

“2. ‘You still have Joan.’ (Referring to our six-year-old in first grade.) Wonderful! Of course we adored Joan and we were thankful–but Kathy died!

“1. ‘You are so brave. I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to my child.’ This number one, top of my list of horrors,is ‘You are so brave, Mary Lou.’ BRAVE???? Who, ME? With a wrinkled raisin where my heart used to be and a Humvee on my chest, I felt anything but brave! I just went through the motions of life, trying to help my husband and my mother who were devastated by Kathy’s death. So much for comforting comments. (signed) Mary Lou”

I am well aware that people often do not know what to say in a time of tragedy and great loss. That’s why many people avoid funerals and wakes. My pointing out mistakes that some people make could actually increase the tension and make some more determined to do even less. I hope not.

But I do have suggestions on what to do when your friend has a death in his/her family.

1. Your presence is the biggest gift; you don’t have to say anything. You’ll realize this when you experience the loss and you’re on the receiving end of the comfort. All someone has to do to touch your deep hurt is walk up and hug you. No words required. Just a hug. Human touch has such power to comfort. If you’re not a hugger or the recipient isn’t, a handshake, a hand on the shoulder, or some other touch will work equally fine.

2. If you want to say something comforting, whether in person or in a note, here are three simple suggestions.

“I’m so sorry.” (You don’t have to say ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ Just ‘I’m so sorry’ works just fine.)

“I love you.” (That’s the best, so long as it’s real and appropriate.)

“I’m praying for you.” (If you are, say this. If you haven’t been praying already, perhaps you shouldn’t say it.)

That’s all. You thought this was going to be complex? In a typical situation, after you have given a hug and simply said, “I’m so sorry,” the grieving friend will want to talk. There is no way to predict what he or she will say. However, it’s crucial for you to remember that your assignment is to listen. Do not tell your friend of the time you lost your father or mother or brother or whoever. Do not give advice. Do not tell a story. This is not the time. Just listen, and ask the Holy Spirit to help you to respond appropriately.

Last August 29, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and the levees broke in our city, devastating much of New Orleans. Over a thousand people died here, and in a sense, the city as we had known it ceased to be.

And just as when a death occurs, people gather to comfort and mourn with you, we’ve received friends and visitors from all over the nation. Some have come to grieve, to weep, to see how it looks and decide how to help. Some have worn work clothes, rolled up their sleeves, and jumped right in. But, as with other deaths, some came to give advice.

I recall one visitor who stood at our weekly pastors’ gathering and preached us all a young sermon on Romans 8:28, how God was going to use this in our lives and that we should be thankful. He did not say one word that was wrong, as I recall. The problem is, he was not qualified to offer such counsel. He had just arrived. He had not shed a tear with us or ministered to a single person. He just came and preached and left.

You will remember that after Job’s incredible losses, his friends arrived and sat with him for 7 days and nights, speaking not a single word. “They saw that his pain was very great” (Job 2:13), and he felt comforted by their presence. Then they started talking and undid all the good they had accomplished. When they finished, Job said, “Miserable comforters are you all.” (Job 16:2)

I love you. I’m sorry. I’m praying for you. Great sounds of healing comfort.

Boogie Melerine said, “We had 61 Sunday, with three professions of faith and one rededication.” Lots of ‘amens’ went up. He said, “Pray for us. We’re still talking with the Presbyterian Church down there about purchasing their property.” They only have 5 or 6 members, and I think they’ve started coming over to Boogie’s church-in-the-carport. As I understand it, the members and the governing body of their denomination are disputing as to who owns the building and property.

Hong Fu Liu of the Chinese Church said, “We baptized fourteen Sunday. And have one who will be baptized soon.” Amens again. All of them saved during the recent Billy/Franklin Graham meeting.

Our Wednesday pastors gathering enters a new phase now. Beginning in late September, while we were still in evacuation, we have met each Wednesday at First Baptist-LaPlace, until today, the last Wednesday in April. That’s almost eight months of regular gatherings in that precious church. Pastor Bobby Burt, Minister of Music Danny Heath, and Office Administrator Kari Walker have taken great care of us and made us feel at home. I kept trying to pick up on any feelings that they wished we would find another meeting place, but there were no such signs. In fact today, Kari and her husband cooked a genuine “home-cooked meal” for everyone. Several of the pastors were heard to say, “I don’t care where the rest of you go next week, I’m coming back here!”

We’ll be meeting at Oak Park Baptist Church in the Algiers section of New Orleans for the next three months, beginning next Wednesday. From 10 to noon. It’s easy enough to find: at the corner of General Meyer and Kabel. We meet in the sanctuary.

Several of our Wednesday ministers are open to churches searching for pastors: Philip Russell, Craig Ratliff, and John Charles Murphy. Craig said, “I have a wonderful series on Joshua I’d love to preach for some church.” I said, “How many sermons?” He said, “Well, it took 7 months the first time I did it, but I could shorten it.” (Laughter)

Friends from outside our region send us resumes of available pastors who are open to moving to New Orleans. I share them with the few churches seeking leaders, but tell them that presently we have more pastors than we do churches.

Alberto Rivera said, “We (Getsemani Bautista) had 51 in Martin Chapel at the seminary Sunday. And we’re about to baptize 4 in Bunyan Hall.” The baptistry in that classroom is generally used to teach students how to baptize; in this case, it’ll be the real thing. I asked Alberto if all 51 of these will move to Getsemani on Elysian Fields Avenue once the building is restored. He said, “We hope to have 71 or 81 by then.” He said half of those coming are new. “I still have 9 living in my back yard in tents. And I’m living in my FEMA trailer in the driveway.”

Oscar Williams: “Our church is meeting with the First Baptist of Destrehan. They meet early and we meet at 12 noon. We had 90 last Sunday, but normally 25 or 30. We’ve been going door-to-door in the Destrehan neighborhood, witnessing. Jesus was right when He said, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.’ We have five neighbors on the verge of coming to our church. They just need some encouragement.”

Donald Miller: “Our church is meeting with the Vieux Carre’ Assembly of God in the French Quarter. They worship at 10 am and so we meet at 8 o’clock. The Iberville Housing Project is just 4 blocks down. We’re taking ‘Jesus’ tapes to people and witnessing.”

Rose and Rudy French are winding their way more and more around our hearts. These MSC (Mission Service Corps) volunteers from Canada are serving with any church that needs them, lately with Boogie Melerine in the St. Bernard area going door to door in FEMA neighborhoods, taking toiletries and cookies and looking for people looking for a friend. Rudy told us of the medical procedure he’s facing soon, then shared a testimony.

His high blood pressure has created complications. The medicine controls it but causes side effects, swelling, for example. Since Canada has national health insurance and we don’t, they will soon be returning home for medical tests. “We see a doctor on May 10 or 11,” he said. We had prayer for him.

Rudy said, “I need to tell you what happened to me. When we first arrived down here after the hurricane, I thought, ‘Wow, these folks are lucky to have me.’ I really did. We went over to Williams Boulevard Baptist Church and asked how we could be of help. The man said, ‘Well, all those garbage cans need to be emptied.'” (Laughter) “Then, after I’d done that two months, I was upset. I was a good preacher and knew it. My spiritual gifts were not being used. In my spirit, I complained to the Lord.”

His wife Rose was working in the kitchen and she and the other workers would put liquids in the garbage cans, which added to the weight, making his job that much tougher. “So, just after I started complaining to the Lord, a garbage can broke and that liquid from the kitchen slopped all over me. It was awful. At that moment, the Holy Spirit said to me, ‘He who would be the greatest in my Kingdom will be my servant.’ I dropped to my knees and repented.”

Rose said, “Yes, and that Saturday, Pastor John Faull called and said he was sick and could Rudy preach for him the next day.”

That’s how God works.

Thomas and Jill Glover are excited about the possibility of buying the buildings and property of the Woodmere Baptist Church where their New Covenant Mission has met for several years. Thomas has a great track record of working with inner city housing in their area. He said, “Twenty-two years ago, we started with Southern Baptists.” Today their church is strong and faithfully ministering in the community. “There are 645 apartment units near our church and most were destroyed by Katrina. No flooding, but wind and water damage. Lately, the neighborhood is reverting to crime and drugs. I’m on a neighborhood committee that is working to save this place. They need manpower. I told them, ‘I can get you the manpower; I’m a Southern Baptist.” Thomas has church groups coming in this summer doing backyard Bible clubs, block parties, and apartment clean-outs.

“The ships are returning to the New Orleans Port,” said Steve and Ann Corbin, MSC volunteers from Pickens, SC, assigned to Global Maritime Ministries. “In the past few days, we have shared the gospel with 7 or 8 countries, by boarding the ships, meeting crews, and passing out literature and ‘Jesus’ tapes.” Where are you living? “We’re staying at an RV park here in LaPlace, and working at the Global center in Reserve,” which is a few miles further upriver. “But we need to relocate, as they are turning that park into a high priced trailer park.” They asked for prayer to find a place to live.

“What is your church doing about a meeting place?” I asked Carlos Lopez. He pastors Ebenezer Spanish Mission, which meets in the fellowship hall of our host church, FBC LaPlace. With their sanctuary renovation going on for several months, the church is holding two morning services in that fellowship hall. “We start at 12 noon,” he said. “And it’s working out okay. We’ve had 4 saved and baptized since Katrina.”

Eric Gonzalez reported that Emmanuel Spanish has started classes for new believers wishing to be discipled. “Six came last Sunday and we’re expecting 10 or 15 next Sunday.”

Lionel Roberts said, “A group from California has refurbished our church. We started church back on Resurrection Sunday and had 120. They came in from every direction–Memphis, Baton Rouge. Last Sunday, we had 30 in attendance.” The empty and still-to-be-determined-what-its-fate-will-be St. Bernard Housing Project sits across the street from Lionel’s mission. He said, “I have a sermon called ‘Dividends of Disaster’ on how God has used this hurricane in our lives.” He added, “I started out in the National Baptist church, and later was a youth pastor in the Full Gospel Baptists. I’ve never been much focused on denominations; if you have Jesus Christ in your life, you’re my brother or sister. But Southern Baptists have really shone in the days since Katrina. People from all over the country have been here, knocking themselves out to help us. It’s been wonderful.”

Lionel added, “I love to come to these meetings. It’s so uplifting to hear what God is doing.”

That made me think of something a pastor no longer living here said to me a couple of years ago. I was urging him to participate in our monthly pastors meetings. He said, almost bitterly, “Why should I come listen to pastors bragging about how many they had in Sunday School Sunday and how many they’re baptizing?” I said, “It’s obvious you haven’t been. Our guys don’t do that. It could be because they don’t have much to brag about.”

An outsider might listen to these reports and think a pastor is bragging about baptizing four or fifteen. Those on the inside know the truth. The real story is that we have been barren for so long, the aisles empty, the altars deserted, the baptistries dry, that we are rejoicing in the Lord that He is sending a harvest.

David Crosby told the group, “Last Sunday, I reported to our congregation at First Baptist about what God is doing in the Chinese church, and the Brazilians, and Boogie Melerine’s group in St. Bernard. And they burst into applause.”

I could not help interjecting here the oneness which we are observing more and more. I said to David Crosby, “Your people did not see that as the reports of what other churches were doing. They saw it as what we all together are accomplishing for the Lord.” That is so far from where we used to be, and so encouraging.

David continued, “I’m in all kinds of groups in this city, including an interdenominational group of ministers. But the most racially diverse group I belong to is this association, this Wednesday pastors meeting. You and I have a great opportunity to show the city how to work together.”

David called our attention to something in Wednesday’s newspaper. The wives of professional golfers, in town for the Zurich Classic golf tournament that starts Thursday, are gutting out houses. A photo showing two of the women, carries this caption: “Overcome by the scene of devastation, Julie Petrovic dabs at tears as Kate Phillips tries to comfort her.” The subtitle of the article reads: “Wives and girlfriends of PGA Tour players were eager to help with storm recovery, but what they witnessed left them brokenhearted.”

I offer to you this thought: their tears are worth far more to the recovery and well-being of this city than their house-gutting. Although we welcome both.

Tony and Mel Bellow said, “Our church needs a Sunday School building. You know how they say a church is no stronger than its Sunday School. But we need a place for one. We have a group coming from Oklahoma to minister. If the price is right, they’re going to help us buy the building next door, and then beautify our church. Please pray to God that He will provide the finances.”

Anthony Pierce said, “Work on restoring our church at 2514 Elysian Fields continues. We hope to resume having church there in 3 weeks. God is faithful.” He reports that the churches that adopted his Evangelistic Baptist Church have been responsive and so helpful. “We have met with 3 of our families,” he said, “and 60 families live nearby in a FEMA park.”

The rains came Wednesday morning just before dawn. A hard, noisy rain, accompanied by deafening thunder and scary lightning. It was wonderful and so welcome. My wife notes that since Katrina soaked the city and then overflowed the levees and tried to drown her, almost no water has fallen on the city. Today, the rains came. By eight o’clock, it was still dark outside and rain was still falling.

The oddest thing. Mosquitoes are everywhere, breeding in the thousands of abandoned pools and ponds of this area. However, volunteers with Operation Blessing, a religious group head-quartered in Slidell, have brought in an interesting remedy: the mosquitofish. These tiny guppylike fish grow only an inch or two, but can devour as many as 100 mosquito larvae a day. So, as workers from the local mosquito and termite control board seek out breeding grounds of these pests, workers from Operation Blessing come behind them, dropping the small fish into ponds.

Dan Suttle of Laurel, Mississippi, said, “They have been one of the most effective, noninsecticidal and nonchemical methods of controlling mosquitoes. Normally, we think of fish as food. But these fish save lives.”

One of our pastors commented, “How interesting that God would give us a fish that loves to eat mosquitoes. Isn’t He something?”

Blessings and comfort abound on every side, if one stops to look for them.

We ended the Wednesday meeting with everyone hugging Rudy and Rose French.

Showers of blessing and blessings of showers.

2 thoughts on “The Sounds of Comfort All Around Us

  1. Bro. Joe,

    Reading what you said about giving hugs to people who are sad, or grieving, reminds me of this piece by Shel Silverstein and it goes like this.

    Hug O’ War

    I will not play at tug o’ war.

    I’d rather play at hug o’ war,

    Where everyone hugs

    Instead of tugs,

    Where everyone giggles

    and rolls on the rug,

    Where everyone kisses,

    And everyone grins,

    And everyone cuddles,

    And everyone wins.

    by Shel Silverstein

    This is a great reminder to all of us about showing love and a hug is one of the best ways to do that. You are right about human touch having the power to comfort, and we all have times we need comfort. We love you Bro. Joe.

    Ginger Davis

  2. Hi Joe!

    I’ve been behind on reading your journals — and spent some time catching up today. Let me tell you once again how glad I am you’ve “been thinkin'” and that you take the time to share those thoughts with us. You remain my beloved connection to home.

    In light of this particular article (regarding the stupid things we often say in the presence of grief) and a previous one on the weariness of you folks at home — I wonder if you would pass on some words of advice to those of us who are coming home when our kids get out of school.

    We have been insulated in many ways — and while we share a similar story, we do not truly know what it has been like to be there from the beginning. Can we come home and bring respite and even a new energy? How can we avoid pouring salt in the wounds, and saying the wrong things? How do we become a part, rather than stand apart? I’ve “been thinking” about this a while now — and after reading your thoughts on offering comfort, would welcome your advice. If that advice could somehow make it into one of your articles — I think others would welcome it as well.

    Keep those thoughts a comin’!

Comments are closed.