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.
"That's OK," she said, explaining that had circumstances been different, she wouldn't have been able to contribute in this way. "The Lord has delivered me through many things."
Another is Vicky Wesner, who has been a member of the church "33 or 34 years."
"My wedding was the first wedding in this church," she said. "I've been teaching Sunday School about 30 years and driving the church van about 30 years, too."
She's seen 13 pastors serve at Bayside.
Gilbert first came to the neighborhood a few years ago when he and several other volunteers arrived to help after Katrina. Part of their mission was to help rebuild the church. Later, providing Vacation Bible School for the community's children became a project.
"Last June, the pastor called and said he was leaving the church in the hands of another gentleman," Gilbert said. When they arrived in Hancock County to help with VBS a few weeks later, he was amazed to find that attendance had dropped dramatically -- to as few as three adults. The former pastor's plans had not worked out, and people were leaving the church.
"They asked if I could help them," he said. Gilbert, 46, became an ordained Baptist minister in 2002, "but I actually started preaching at 19," he said.
His new missions work had begun. What had been an annual trip became an almost-weekly trip. The Gilberts and the Reeds absorb most of the travel expenses themselves.
"The offering is used to keep the lights on," Joey Gilbert said, and Kim Reed added, "and keep the van repaired."
The van picks up neighborhood children who otherwise wouldn't have a ride to the church on Sunday mornings. It doesn't hurt that breakfast, which usually features biscuits, coffee and juice, is served at 9 a.m. Sunday School follows at 9:30 a.m., with the service at 10:30 a.m. On this particular Sunday, two weeks before Christmas Eve, wrapped presents are piled under a Christmas tree in a front corner of the sanctuary. They're gifts provided by groups from the Carnesville area for people in South Mississippi whom they've never met and might never meet. A gift is waiting for each person there.
How does Gilbert do it? Where does he find the willpower, the energy?
"With the Lord's help, and a lot of prayer, and a lot of determination," he said, then added quietly, "If you came on a Sunday, and met the members and the kids, you'd understand. Like I tell people, it's a God thing. Physically, financially, God has made a way. I've just about worn out a vehicle in the past year and a half, but it's all worth it."
Nevertheless, he hopes the church eventually can find a local, permanent pastor. The Gilberts have three children: one in college, one in high school, one in middle school.
"My children are understanding, but they sure do like for Dad to be home," he said.
In the meantime, he beams with genuine happiness when he sees a child find a donated jacket, shirt or dress that will fit or starts telling him how the past week went at school.
"I love this church," said Wesner, a member. "Sometimes I come here and get my peace and quiet. If I have trouble in my mind, I might just sit in the parking lot, and my anxiety is relieved."
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