First there was Dennis, then there was Floyd, and when the flood waters from the Tar River finally receded, the North Carolina town of Princeville (incorporated 1885, population 2,200, as if the numbers matter now) was utterly gone.
Next came the daily, overwhelming deliveries of clothes and food and water to the trailer city of the evacuated, but soon enough, the flood of goodwill turned into a trickle.
In some ways, though, because of groups that never stopped helping, that trickle is strong enough, loyal enough to make a difference. Foremost among those is a coalition of Howard County church members and fraternity brothers who call themselves the Twelve Baskets Ministry (named for the miraculous amount of loaves and fishes Jesus had left over after feeding the hungry masses).
Since September, they have driven seven times down to the Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer city where most of the former Princeville residents are living, delivering fellowship along with the crib liners and canned goods. The Marylanders have adopted 13 needy families and vow to continue helping them until every flooded-out soul is back in a home--a commitment, they estimate, of at least three years.
On Sunday, they brought Christmas to FEMA City.
Five hours after leaving First Baptist Church of Guilford, in Columbia, which is coordinating the relief effort, the bus arrived. The 50 volunteers stepped off the bus under a drizzly, gray sky to behold hundreds of dirty white trailers parked near a women's prison. Princeville Mayor Glennie Matthewson II said that their arrival "was one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever witnessed. I have never seen so many smiling faces."
The good Samaritans knocked on every trailer door, inviting residents to worship on the prison's outdoor basketball court. The traveling congregation--pastor John L. Wright, deacons, ushers, a choir--handed out Bibles and programs to 200 residents.
Wright read of the prophecy of Christ's coming, and of His birth. The group prayed, sang, gave thanks--for their lives and for those whom God sent to help and encourage them. They offered themselves as proof there can be Christmas without shopping malls or decked halls.
"We've lost a lot," the message was, "but we're still living."
After the service, a trooper's car pulled up, and Santa (Doesn't he look a little like the mayor?) stepped out to greet the children. In addition to the usual food and necessities--goods collected, in large part, by Howard County schoolchildren--the people of Maryland had brought the people of North Carolina Christmas gifts, ornaments and decorations.
And they visited their adopted families whose utility bills they pay, whose children they clothe, whose troubles they listen to. These are not relatives, but it is as if they were.
"If I've got a loaf of bread, they've got what I've got," Wright said. "They have half a loaf, and I've got half a loaf."
One of those residents is Mattie Jones, 47, who lost her home and factory job. "I thank God for them. To have an ear sometimes to just sit and listen, a hug, just to put their arms around you and let you know you're not alone," Jones said.
The presents go both ways. After Forster Harmon, of Jessup, brought a bike for the 3-year-old girl in one adopted family, she finally gave him the hug he had pleaded for every visit. The family, too, offered gifts: an apple, pieces of candy.
Yet for every family helped, another is left out. Visitors spoke of the children's dejected faces in the trailer next door, the man who watched and said: "I'm trying to get up on my feet. I lost everything, and I don't get anything."
Which put a damper on everything, drawing tears of pain with the joy.
"One church cannot supply what everybody would need," Harmon said. "You cannot carry enough for 300 families."
Princeville, the first U.S. town chartered by blacks, got nearly four feet of rain in three weeks, and its 40 businesses and 850 homes were sunk.
Some residents set up campers on their old lots. Some packed in with relatives, several families to a home. With the Red Cross motel vouchers long expired, some live in the street.
Most live in trailers, as many as eight in each, in the FEMA City. There is trash piling up at the dumpsters, telephone booths without telephones, people walking barefoot. No corner stores, no restaurants. Propane tanks can get a family through a few meals at a time, but a cold winter?
Back in Princeville, little has changed in three months. "It looks like a war zone," Matthewson said. "We're going to have to rebuild our entire town."
Twelve Loaves promises to help as many families as they can, sharing their loaves fifty-fifty or more.
Said Jamesetta Jackson, who has made all seven trips to North Carolina: "I haven't put up a tree, I haven't put up any lights, done my Christmas shopping or anything. But it's the greatest joy to help our families in North Carolina."
To make donations, call First Baptist Church of Guilford at 410-792-7096.
CAPTION: Mattie Jones, right, a resident at the FEMA trailer city near Rocky Mount, N.C., gets a comforting hug from First Baptist Church volunteer Jamesetta Jackson, center, as church member Ida Wright prays during a morning devotional.