Preacher of tiny Arkansas church becomes counselor, spokesman for families of flood victims

LODI, Ark. (AP) — 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.

Between counseling sessions, Cowart updated family members on the search and rescue efforts from inside the forest.

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 firsthand the destruction from the flooding.

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."

Four days after the flooding, Cowart's church had slowly begun to return to normal. Gone were the hundreds of family members who had camped out on the church grounds, along with most of the reporters and television news crews staked outside. Cowart said dozens of aid workers and volunteers remained at the church.

The church had become a symbol of the generosity that the victims of the flood, most of whom were from out of state, were shown by a tight-knit community. Red Cross and Salvation Army workers handed out food and bottled water to those in need, and a steady flow of cars with locals dropped off clothing and other supplies.

Members of the church helped fix meals for the victims' families. Cowart's wife, Andrea, helped families contact funeral homes where the bodies of their loved ones had been transported.

A local appliance store provided refrigerators, while a fire department bought cell phone chargers for family members at the church.

"We've had local people here drive up with checks they've signed blank," Cowart said. "They've said 'You fill it out and whatever you need. Go do it.'"

Cowart said the generosity is what he expected from Lodi, where he was born and raised. Cowart, who also is a livestock farmer, moved back to the area two years ago after preaching at a church in Hickory Grove — about 90 miles north — and returned to preaching after the Pilgrim Rest pastor retired.

Looking forward, Cowart said the church hopes to use some of the unused donated food to start a food bank for needy families in the area. He also might eventually hold a special service for the volunteers and rescuers who responded.

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."