Hurricane Katrina response brought caring young couple together

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Christian Missionary Katie Hooks Manning stops to comfort a very young friend in New Orleans.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Americans from all walks of life opened their hearts and their wallets to help millions in need. Thousands more volunteered their time and labor by traveling to shattered towns such as Davie, Florida; Mobile, Alabama; Pascagoula, Mississippi, and New Orleans.

Katie Hooks and Mark Manning took separate paths to New Orleans, but in time, their love for that city and their desire to help others morphed into another kind of love – a love which some would say was truly made in heaven.

“I grew up in a small town in Indiana, where my family attended a pretty conservative church,” said Mark Manning. “I was enrolled as an Exercise Science major at Indiana Wesleyan, with an eye on becoming a physical therapist, when I heard from a friend in Hagerstown, Maryland about the opportunity to help out in New Orleans. We both headed down on our spring break in partnership with Castle Rock Community Church of New Orleans, which is in the Central City area.”

“It was unreal down there.”

New Orleans' 9th Ward. (Wikimedia)
New Orleans’ 9th Ward – “All We Have Left Is Our Life & Our Dignity”  (Wikimedia)

“We were working in the lower 9th Ward, and it was almost like driving through a tunnel, because so much debris had been piled along the sides of the road. To see houses literally picked up off their foundations and just pushed back! The house we ended up working on still had a foot of water in the back yard. It looked like someone had taken a blender and just scrambled the whole thing. We were able to come back the following year for Spring Break. You could sense some progress – there was some life coming back to the city – but I only saw it as another week – not necessarily as something I would ever do again.”

But Mark would return to work in New Orleans after he finished college. And he also went to Galveston, Texas to help in that city’s recovery effort. Eight trips in all.

“I graduated college in 2008, and I knew that I wanted to do missions for the summer or maybe a year. It was the perfect time. I didn’t have a job or any obligations which would keep me from volunteering, so I moved down there for 2½ months and worked with ReachGlobal Crisis Response (formerly Touch Global).  It was an awesome summer, with God providing for me. It’s amazing the foundations which were laid that year. That’s actually when Katie and I first met.”

Katie Hooks was born and brought up in North Carolina – the youngest of four. Raised in a Southern Baptist church, Katie said she came to know the Lord at a pretty young age.

“I attended UNC Chapel Hill and studied chemistry. I thought I would help people on the molecular level; that I would look at diseases and how they interact with the body and how to prevent that. I believed that was my calling in life. But my involvement with Intervarsity Fellowship led me to New Orleans for a week during my Spring Break in 2008. I went to serve – not thinking anything of it. I just wanted to help people who were hurting.”

“My last day there, I met a woman on the street who told me her life story. She had been through so much, a lot of bad things, but it seemed that her faith was rock solid. God was good, she said, and He was going to see her through. It was during that conversation that I thought, ‘Wow, I definitely don’t have that kind of faith,’ but I felt that God was tugging at my heart to change my plans. After I graduated, I went back to NOLA for what I imagined was going to be one year.”

“That was six years ago.”

Katie Manning (right) with volunteer Chelsea Leigh Mosher. (Facebook)
Katie Manning (right) on a relief trip to Haiti with volunteer Chelsea Leigh Mosher. (Facebook)

Katie’s job with ReachGlobal consisted primarily of coordinating volunteer teams, such as the ones headed up by Baltimorean Mark Wigley of New Life Automotive.

“We had teams from all over the country. Not only from Maryland, but from Michigan, Pennsylvania, Colorado. One group came all the way from Hawaii. There were some troubled teens from San Antonio who pitched in. A group from Canada. We even had a girl from Argentina and one from Nigeria. Most of the volunteers where from white middle-class, suburban churches. It was interesting to watch their perspective change as they worked in the inner city. On Monday afternoon, they would be discouraged. But by Friday, they were energized and they usually wanted to come back.”

“I stayed busy as well – too busy to really have any kind of a social life. For six years I’ve been a single missionary gal. It’s been me and God – and that’s been great. But there were times where it was hard, and I felt like I wanted to be with someone.”

Mark Manning also felt a void in his life. After his first summer in New Orleans, he returned to Indiana and a job delivering furniture.

“I was working but never felt a real sense of direction in my life. I stayed in touch with Katie – primarily because we had a real spiritual element to our friendship. We had been doing ministry together, so we would talk about our walk with the Lord and ask, ‘What’s God been teaching you?’ Stuff like that. But I’ll admit, for a while I was mad with God. I was thinking, ‘Here I am with a college degree and I’m living at home and delivering furniture.’ It was tough going, but the Lord taught me a lot in that time.”

Mark said he took a few more trips to NOLA and Galveston before landing a job in North Carolina at a camp for troubled youth. “I guess that’s when Katie and I started to Skype on a regular basis. I knew I wanted to pursue a relationship with her. And I knew she was committed to being a missionary. We just needed to figure out if we were both called to the ministry. Through a series of conversations with some close friends and with my dad, I knew that this was the direction my life was headed.”

Katie and Mark Manning.
Katie and Mark Manning.

The couple were married on February 1, 2014. Last summer they went through a series of interviews with ReachGlobal, and in October, they were accepted as full time missionaries.

Mark believes that working with people in need is the best way to show the Love of Christ. One of his favorite Bible stories is in Acts 16 where Paul and Silas are wrongly thrown into jail.

“The jailer was in a time of crisis. Because of an earthquake, he thought all the prisoners under his watch had escaped. But Paul and Silas met him at that time of trouble and shared the gospel. It’s kind of a picture of what we do with our ministry. We believe that in times of crisis, the door is open for us to minister to people of all ethnicities – of all beliefs. It also shows how the situation softened the jailer’s heart to receive the Word.”

Paul’s journeys also serve as an example to Mark of the importance of working as a team.

“Katie is just so good with people. I’m good with the part of physically building things. She’s great at building relationships.”

Katie also recognizes the effect of teamwork, citing Paul’s work in preparing Timothy for the ministry, and referencing Ecclesiastes 4:9-12.

“Two are better than one at increasing the fruits of the labor,” she rightly notes.

And the part in that passage about a “cord of three strands”?

“At some point, we’ll want to have a kid,” said Katie. “That will be interesting. But we’re excited about this next season of ministry and seeing where the Lord leads us. We are looking to do this as long as the Lord wants us here.”

Katie and Mark on a roof in New Orleans.
Mark and Katie on a roof in New Orleans.

How much time will depend on the support the young couple receives. Unlike some missionaries or aid workers who are funded by a church or an organization, Katie and Mark must secure their own continued support.

“We get sustenance through churches and individuals who will covenant with us,” said Mark. “Primarily through prayers, but also financially.”

Katie further explained, “As a single, short term missionary, my support goals were simply to secure the funds needed for room and board, transportation and health insurance. When I went long term, it wasn’t one big yearly goal. It became a monthly sustaining goal; hence, it’s not like we know how long we’ll be doing this. We want people to see it as a partnership. We connect with teams who have been there; with people we have met. Friends see that even though they can’t be there on the front lines, their resources are allowing us to be there. In that way, they are just as much a part of the work as we are. Granted, it’s not fun to ask for help. We’re called to be missionaries – not fund-raisers. But it’s an area where I’ve seen the Lord provide. It’s a humbling experience.”

Katie then offered a tangible example of the Lord’s provision.

“Early one Sunday morning in 2011, I was driving from North Carolina to Louisiana. Halfway there, I hit an animal on I-85. Suddenly, dashboard lights I’d never seen before started to flash. Stuff was oozing out from under the car, but I made it to a gas station where a lady at the counter gave a list of local mechanics. As she handed me the list, she said, ‘You do know it is Sunday?’ Yes, I knew that everybody was probably closed. But I started dialing numbers. The first one was a dud, but at the second one, a guy answered the phone. By this point, I was practically hysterical. I had no idea where I was, and my car was broken down. I’m bawling on the phone and telling him what happened, and he said, ‘Well, I can come and get you, but I’m going to church.’ And the first thing out of my mouth was, ‘I’m a Christian. I’ll go to church with you.’”

“Of course, I had to call my parents and let them know what had happened and that I had a plan. Never call my Dad without having a plan. So I called them and told them this mechanic was coming to get me and we were going to church, and they said, ‘What???’ But I assured them that if I had any concern I wouldn’t get into his vehicle. In the meantime, the mechanic had tried to call me back, and he heard my voice mail announcement that I work with Crisis Response. When he got there, he said, ‘Are you a missionary?’ I said yes, then he said, ‘Do you have any prayer cards or handouts you can bring along with you?’ I did, so I grabbed some from my bag, along with a dress, since I was in a tee shirt and gym shorts and you don’t go to church in the south dressed like that.”

Beulah_Alabama_Welcome_Sign“I get to church, still not sure of where I am or what I’m doing, and the pastor stands up and says, ‘We have a special guest with us here this morning.’ I look around to see who it is, and he says, ‘Katie, won’t you get up and tell us who you are and what you’re doing here.’ So, I stood up and said, ‘Well, I didn’t think I was supposed to be here today, but I guess God wanted me here.’”

“I told them about the accident and about my ministry. It turned out that the mechanic, whose name was Jimmy, was on the church council. After the service, he and his wife Cindy took me to lunch. Cindy said, ‘We’ve been in business for more than 20 years, and we’ve never done this before, but if you would like to stay with us tonight so you don’t have to be alone in a motel room, you’re welcome.’ I had completely busted my radiator, and they weren’t going to be able to get the part til the next day. Of course, I accepted this offer, and since the shop was on their property, I walked with them to work the next morning. The parts were supposed to come on an early truck, but they didn’t get there until the afternoon. In the meantime, I got to meet Uncle Ronnie, their son TJ, and a number of other people. When my car was ready, I went to pay the bill, but they said that someone from the church had already paid it for me.”

“There is no paper trail that any of this ever happened – except it did, and I’ve been back to visit them. But it’s just amazing that there I was in Beulah, Alabama, and God connected me with a mechanic who was a believer, then with his family and his church family, and they took me in and took care of me. For me, it was like, ‘Wow God you are amazing and you are the Provider.’ The funny thing is, as I continued my trip, I of course got pulled over in Mississippi. I wasn’t worried; not after what I’d just been through. When I rolled down my window, the officer said, ‘Ma’am, I’m not going to give you a ticket. Just slow down.’”

“God is good.”

Katie Manning is somewhere under all of those children.  (Facebook)
Katie Manning is somewhere under all of those children. (Facebook)

The experience may have tempered Katie’s driving, but in no way has it slowed her down. When she and Mark return to New Orleans this winter, he will pick up with a construction project while Katie resumes reaching volunteers through an intern program.

“When I first got to New Orleans, I guess I thought I had all the answers. You know, suburban girl – going into a rural environment to help people get out of their poverty. I had a lot of high aspirations. You don’t realize until you are there that it isn’t just the individual and their choices. It’s also the environment. A combination of both that is keeping people in a state of physical and spiritual poverty.”

“It’s been almost ten years now since Hurricane Katrina. When the storm first hit, there were a lot of volunteers. It’s not in the news anymore, so people don’t know there is still a lot of work to do. A lot of organizations have pulled out, and there are fewer volunteers coming. A house which would have taken six months to rebuild might now take a year and a half.”

“It was an unforeseen blessing to work with the volunteer teams. I moved to NOLA to work with the people of NOLA. I wanted the volunteers to love the people as much as I did. Our first trip was just for a week, but I guess God was asking both of us, ‘What are you doing the other fifty-one weeks of the year?”

“There is still so much to be done!”



Editor’s note: This story first appeared in our sister publication the Baltimore Post-Examiner.  It’s the eighth part of an ongoing series which will look at the places and people that make up the rich history and diverse nature of spirituality, belief and observance. Read the series here.