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Katrina and Christmas

The tale of two evangelism explosions

Our cover story details the work of one Christian group that's been helping Katrina evacuees and many more in need. Similar organizations exist around the country, but some say, so what? They say the government's job is so big and its funds so vast that any comparison of religious and governmental aid programs is mixing grapes and watermelons.

And yet, look at big numbers compiled during the two months after Katrina. Nine thousand Southern Baptists from 41 states volunteered 120,000 days during which they served 10 million meals and pushed forward cleanup and recovery efforts. During those same two months the Salvation Army served nearly 5 million hot meals and over 6.5 million sandwiches, snacks, and drinks from 178 mobile feeding units and 11 field kitchens, with each kitchen able to produce 20,000 hot meals per day.

Those are just two of the active groups: Many others also delivered food and supplies in a much more flexible style than bureaucratic FEMA. Ronnie Harris, mayor of the New Orleans suburb of Gretna, flat-out said, "Church workers were the first volunteers on the ground. It is churches that have made the difference in Hurricane Katrina recovery." Many others concur, but some Christians worry that such church activity is the "social gospel" revisited, at the expense of evangelism.

There's reason for concern, because we are all prone to wander spiritually and to focus on what the world praises rather than on what it misunderstands or even abhors. And yet, evangelism is often most successful, in God's timing, when those hostile to Christ look up in surprise at what Christians are doing.

For example, after Katrina an atheist asked in the British left-wing Guardian Weekly why Christians "are the people most likely to take the risks and make the sacrifices involved in helping others." You can almost see the synapses sparking in the writer's brain: "It ought to be possible to live a Christian life without being a Christian or, better still, to take Christianity a la carte. Yet . . . it is impossible to doubt that faith and charity go hand in hand."

He's right, and add evangelism to the mix: Faith leads to works and works lead people to ask questions about faith. As the works of the faithful diminish the pride of the faithless-the British journalist concluded that Christians are "morally superior to atheists like me"-Christian charity plows the ground for an evangelistic response: No, not morally superior, just touched by One who was.

Even hardcore U.S. anti-Christian publications couldn't help noticing the difference Christian belief made during the post-Katrina days. A New York Times story described how "from sprawling megachurches to tiny congregations, churches across the country have mobilized in response to Hurricane Katrina, offering shelter, conducting clothing drives and serving hot meals to evacuees, many of whom have had difficulty getting help from inundated government agencies." The Times didn't even object (this one time) when those who "finish clearing debris or doing temporary repairs on damaged houses . . . give the homeowners a signed Bible and say a prayer with them."

A long time ago a nation faced a disaster even greater than Katrina. Enemy soldiers occupied the land and imposed toady officials on a resentful populace. It seemed that God had been quiet for centuries, and some said He would never speak again. Then the ultimate act of Christian charity transformed every aspect of life. That deed began the transformation of everything around us.

During the last week of November a vigorous debate about Christmas broke out on Some Christians oppose celebrating the holiday because several Christmas traditions have pagan origins. But God is always transforming old into new: hearts of stone to hearts of flesh, the former sites of abortion businesses into pro-life counseling centers. So why not enjoy rather than worry about a holiday honoring the beginning of the key act of God's reclaiming of the world?

In a similar way, shouldn't we all be glad that, post-Katrina, Christians walked in Christ's steps by sacrificing themselves for others? Christ's birth, His sacrificial life and death, His resurrection: Those are the key tools of evangelism, and those who die to self are the most effective evangelists.