They came to Beckley for a weekend family reunion Aug. 26 and planned to stay just a few days. Little did they know that the following Monday they’d find themselves planted in front of a television set watching Katrina destroy the home they’d left behind in Louisiana.

Hilda Smith, her daughter, Frances Brown, and Brown’s daughter, Sherri Hooker — all residents of Gretna, La., just a 15-minute drive from New Orleans — are still here, patiently waiting to return home and grateful for the outpouring of support and hospitality they’ve received from family and new friends in West Virginia.

They believe it’s no accident they escaped the hurricane. That, they say, was divine intervention.

“It was the will of God,” said Smith, who originally hails from Long Branch but left the region in 1959.

They say it was God’s will that they stayed a couple extra days after their large family reunion. It was God’s will that family members had just completed remodeling an old church into a sort of family clubhouse, fully furnished and available for anyone in distress.

“God already had a place for us, and we didn’t even know,” Smith said. “It was a blessing.”

But God’s will doesn’t always appear as a blessing, she added.

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“Katrina was God’s will, a warning,” Smith said. “Sometimes we don’t heed like we should. ... There are some with no value on life at all, and God was not pleased.”

Smith, a woman devoted to her faith, said she had a feeling something was going to happen.

“Things are just too bad,” she said. “You turn on the TV and someone is getting killed. ... All the joy, the pleasure, has just left. ... These are perilous times. People need to pray and get their souls right with God. We are not to look to heaven and say, ‘God, why did you do this?’ We are not to question God, so we just have to go back and pick up the pieces and keep on praising Him. It could have been much worse.”

Much worse, they say, but it was still tragic.

“The tears would fall when we’d see the devastation on TV,” Hooker said.

“When you’d see the people on TV, and they’re begging for help, and you’re wondering to yourself why they didn’t get help, and you’re constantly praying, asking the Lord to relieve them because you can feel a person’s pain and agony — the tears would fall,” Brown said. “To see the homes, some of the people were laying out their dead — it really bothers you. It really will make you change your life even if you don’t want to.”

“ ... Things are happening all over the world. People have got to come together and band together,” Brown continued. “That’s what we need. There’s just too much devastation. Peoples’ lives are lost. It doesn’t matter: black, white. It doesn’t matter. You’re all in the same basket together.”

“There comes a time when we are to pray without ceasing,” Smith added. “Now is that time. Man can only do so much.”

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And man has done much for these three during the last two months they’ve spent staying in the family clubhouse built by Smith’s in-laws, Homer and Joseph Smith of Beckley. The ladies said local congregations and even one in Washington, D.C., helped them by donating clothes and money.

Help has come from St. John’s United Holiness Church, Holiness Church of Jesus, Word of Truth Church of God in Christ, Mount Zion Baptist Church, Ebenezer Baptist Church and St. Luke Baptist Church of God, all in the Beckley area, and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Washington. The women thank them.

“Material things we can always get back, but a life we cannot,” Smith said.

Even their jobs, Hooker said, can be retrieved. She and her mother both teach 1-year-olds at Mary’s Child Care Center. Though the center suffered severe damage, it’s up and running again, and their jobs there are waiting for them. For that they are thankful.

But they’re also thankful for the things that have surrounded them in Beckley. Both Smith and Brown celebrated birthdays here. They visited the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine to see what their ancestors did for a living. They loved churches, Crossroads Mall and restaurants.

“The hospitality here is great,” Hooker said. “The food is great.”

“And our in-laws are just so nice,” Smith said. “Everyone has been really kind and generous to us.”

The women don’t want to leave the New Orleans area, and they are looking forward to the day their home will be ready for them to reclaim, possibly within two weeks. Their landlord is working to repair severe water damage and mold problems. But once they return, they do plan on making the 12-hour drive back to Beckley at least twice a year, Lord willing.

“It’s going to be a long process to get everything fixed,” Brown said. “But all we can do is have patience and wait, and God will work it out.”

“He made a way for us,” Smith said. “And a lot of other people, I’m sure, can say the same thing.”

— E-mail: bnaudrey@register-herald.com

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