Guy Richard accepted the call to be the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Gulfport in May 2005, and it turned out to be a bigger job than he thought it would be.
Richard, now 49, accepted the pastor’s job after finishing his doctorate in Scotland. The former Auburn graduate and his family had returned to the U.S. that summer and watched on TV as Hurricane Katrina roared ashore Aug. 29 while the Richards attended a wedding in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
As he watched, he realized his job duties had expanded from routine pastoring to helping guide the church through the aftermath of the devastation of Katrina.
When he leaves the church June 1 for his new job at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta, he will have overseen the transition of the church moving from its site overlooking U.S. 90 in downtown Gulfport — which took the full impact of the storm surge — and rebuilding north of Interstate 10.
“I remember watching hurricane coverage and saw what I thought was our church but it turned out to be First Baptist (which was also on U.S. 90),” Richard said. “The next day, Woody Mason, the clerk of the session, called me and said most of the people in the church had lost everything.”
Richard and his wife, Jennifer, decided he would go ahead and accept the job, which had not been scheduled to start until Oct. 12, 2005.
First Presbyterian in Gulfport had been without a pastor since August 2004 when M.D. Connor left the pulpit.
“We decided we would come and try to help as long as we could,’’ Richard said. “We didn’t know if it would be a week or two weeks or six months or what. We didn’t know the scope (of what had happened).’’
With the church devastated on the beach, Richard led 80 members in his first church service on the lawn of parishioner Tim Murr’s house in Gulfport, an event that was covered by MSNBC.
The church met there for two weeks before getting permission to hold services in the gym at Bayou View Elementary School.
“We had 80 people spilling out on the lawn but that was a good number after the storm. There was not a dry eye in the place.’’
From that modest start, First Presbyterian has rebounded and now averages 200 people on Sundays.
“The church has almost doubled in size, and offerings, and budget,’’ Richard said. “We have added 350 to 400 new members in the 12 years I’ve been here. A lot have moved away during that time. But after the storm, we lost 50 to 70 folks because they lost everything … so they relocated.
“The Lord has done an incredible work here in the aftermath of the storm. We have seen the truth of Roman 8:28. God really does work all things — even horrific things like Katrina — together for good. We’ve seen good come out of the bad of Katrina.”
From September 2005 to Dec. 31, 2007, the church hosted Camp Hope in Long Beach. This originated when Heritage Presbytery — in Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania — adopted the church and sent people and money to the Coast. About 385 homes were rebuilt free of charge in those two-plus years. More than 2,500 volunteers eventually participated and more than $15 million was raised.
The church broke ground on its new building, at 10885 O’Neal Road, off Mississippi 605, in 2008. The first worship service was held there in November 2009. And Richard finally was able to embark on a more-normal pastorate.
Richard will become the new president of Reformed Seminary in Atlanta as well as a professor of systematic theology.
Although the memory of the epic event has lost some of its immediate edge over the last 12 years, Guy Richard certainly will never forget that first service and the following steps of rebuilding the church.