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Hard Path to Salvation

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By Eugene Robinson
Thursday, September 8, 2005

BILOXI, Miss. -- "That woman Katrina," Rosa Sandifer said, "she was mad." Sandifer and her sister, Patricia Walker, were sneaking a look at how the big floating casinos that once lined the beach had been tossed inland and smashed into debris. Soldiers and police chase away gawkers for fear they will get in the way, but Sandifer thought people who lived around here should be able to see what has happened to their livelihood.

This is a town where people go to church on Sunday and mean it, but for material sustenance, Biloxi leads others unto temptation. Casino gambling has transformed this coastline, lifting thousands out of poverty. Now much of the industry is in ruins.

B.G. -- Before Gambling -- Sandifer was going nowhere, working as a seamstress in a factory. On a whim she took a free class that one of the new casinos was offering; she ended up getting hired, and now she is a blackjack dealer. She still has a job -- the casino where she works is afloat in its sheltered cove in the back bay -- but many others aren't so lucky. You look down the beach and you realize that thousands of jobs are just gone.

Katrina's strongest winds hit the Mississippi coast, and Biloxi is appallingly damaged. The Hard Rock Cafe's iconic giant guitar still stands defiant, but the building behind it was smashed. Just about everything along the beach will have to be rebuilt, after the search dogs and the bulldozers and the huge military hovercraft complete their rescue-and-recovery mission. Even well inland, there are streets where most houses are missing a roof, or were bisected by a falling tree or simply have been reduced to rubble.

On hard-hit Division Street, one of the buildings that survived is the Lighthouse Apostolic Church. Pastor DeBruce Nelson, working in fellowship with another minister -- the Rev. Lee Bruner, whose own church was obliterated -- has turned Lighthouse into a bustling relief center. Samaritans drove up to unload boxes full of bottled water, canned food, diapers, baby formula, whatever they had to give. People who needed these things came by to pick them up, and to gather encouragement.

Nelson was looking toward a future that had to be brighter than the present. Great things would happen, he said; within six months the place would start coming back. Jobs would reappear and houses would be rebuilt. Lives would resume.

Bruner had a different view. "A lot of things have to happen down here," he said. "People are living in houses where the roofs are torn up, the doors are blown off, and they have nowhere else to go. They're releasing people from the shelters with no jobs and no housing. And the insurance companies are telling people that since there was a flood along with the wind, and they don't cover floods, there's only so much they will pay. Isn't there something the federal government can do? Where are they?"

Just then a man named Jeff Skelley drove up, rushed over to the two ministers and told them he had come on behalf of a group of churches in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The churches had obtained a Boeing 737 that would arrive in 24 hours, and Skelley was offering to take 100 evacuees back to Myrtle Beach, put them up in hotel rooms and support them for up to three months.

"We're already looking for jobs for these people, and we'll put their children in Christian schools, or of course we can put them in the public schools if they prefer," Skelley said. "This is for a three-month period to where these counties can get built back."

Bruner shook his head. "This community isn't going to be built back in three months. Not in three years," he said.

Skelley persisted: "I'm just authorized to offer three months, but maybe they'll stay longer. Listen, the plane is coming tomorrow. I've tried to work through the Red Cross, but they won't give me the time of day, and I understand that. They have no way of knowing who I am. But I know you understand what we're trying to do because we're brothers in the Lord. The first 100 people God picks are the ones I can take."

The three men hugged and prayed. Then Skelley went off to spread the word about the plane to Myrtle Beach, and the two ministers went off to ponder the possibility of shipping some hard-hit families away. If people left, would they ever come back? And come back to what?

The business of temptation was ruined in Biloxi. What was the right path to salvation?

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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