LODI, Ark. – As a prelude to Father’s Day, Graig Cowart planned to preach to his Baptist congregation about the importance of family. When survivors of a deadly flash flood showed up at his church wet and worried, he opted for works over words.

“The last thing they need is a sermon,” Cowart said.

The Pilgrim Rest Landmark Missionary Baptist Church is 20 miles from the Albert Pike Recreation Area in Arkansas’ Ouachita Mountains, where a wall of water slicing through the darkness last Friday killed 20 campers. It took more than a weekend of searching to recover what is believed to be the last of the victims, while Cowart turned his church into the gathering spot for families who needed solace and strength.

“That’s what we’re about, anyway, is those people. We just kind of put our lives on hold so they could get their lives back on track,” Cowart said.

When word spread of the deadly flooding, Cowart’s church hosted mourning as the bad news piled on. Families wept, whether in the air-conditioned activity center or the 95-degree heat outside.

At one point, about 100 family members crowded the church grounds, along with hundreds more volunteers, aid workers and journalists.


The 43-year-old pastor became the de facto spokesman for the families, providing their public face in one of the worst disasters in Arkansas history. He tended to reporters, too, offering them water as they waited in the heat.

Although he’s been a preacher for 18 years, Cowart said he struggled with what to tell the family members as they waited. The church canceled services and classes planned for Sunday, and he even opted against holding a small informal service with family members that day. Instead, he held private devotionals with the families on Sunday and Monday nights to meet and pray with them about the search.

What they needed more, Cowart said, was a sense of closure after days of waiting. That’s why he and U.S. Forest Service officials went on a tour of the campground with the families to see the flood destruction.

With the help of rescue commanders, some were able to retrieve personal belongings from their recreational vehicles and tents. Some managed to find photographs of their children, while one family recovered a baby’s blanket.

“They’re struggling to even grasp what’s happening to themselves,” Cowart said hours after the Sunday tour. “That’s what it was for. … It was to help them with the grieving. It was emotional and a shocking experience.”

Cowart never did deliver his pre-Father’s Day sermon, and at one point while ministering to flood victims even forgot what he was going to say.

Serving the victims seemed a greater blessing in the long run.

“We all talk about religious ideas and going to church, you have your ideas and I have mine,” Cowart said. “What happened with this is sometimes God just steps out and presents you with a real life situation. This was a major crisis where we were going to be tested with our faith.”


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