BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- Like many pastors, Joey Gilbert felt called to serve.
But that call ended up being long-distance.
Gilbert has been pastor at a small church in the Bayside community -- which has an average Sunday attendance of 40 -- for about 17 months.
Children rush up to give him a hug, even though they might be bashful about talking, and he's just as glad to see them. Adults give him a hearty handshake or a high-five.
But this isn't your average calling.
The thing is, he doesn't live in Bay St. Louis or Waveland. He doesn't even live on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, or anywhere in Mississippi or nearby Louisiana.
About three weekends each month, Gilbert drives from Carnesville, Ga., to Bayside Baptist Church off U.S. 90. It's about a 1,000-mile round-trip journey. That's in addition to doing his weekday job as a land surveyor for a company called Landtech.
Carnesville is about 75 miles northeast of Atlanta, and as anyone who has driven in Georgia knows, it's almost impossible to bypass that city's traffic in the northern half of the state. Yet Gilbert, often joined by wife Julie, who is a teacher, and friends Joyce and Kim Reed, sees this route as a regular mission trip to people who captured his heart after Hurricane Katrina.
Like much of Hancock County, the Bayside community was hit hard by the catastrophic storm. A building intended to be a sort of neighborhood clubhouse now houses a convenience store and a coin laundry. Katrina cottages dot the streets. Several struggling families now call the development area home, with a few original residents.
One of those original residents is Suzy Medrano, a retired nurse who has made her daughter's empty house available to the Gilberts and the Reeds as a sort of free bed and breakfast. It's her donation to the cause. She wants Bayside Baptist to succeed.