A different kind of pilgrim

New Waveland Café volunteers serve food for a community Thanksgiving meal.

This isn't their first Thanksgiving and it won't be their last; it just may be their most memorable. 

All along the Gulf Coast, families and whole communities are celebrating the fact that they are simply alive.  Three months ago when Hurricane Katrina blew this region apart, shattering property, people and their prosperity, being alive was far from a given.

And here in the tiny Mississippi towns of Waveland and Bay St. Louis, where Katrina unleashed the brunt of her wrath, where people are picking up, literally, the pieces of their lives, they are not all that unlike the original Pilgrims, striving against the forces of nature to carve out new lives.

And so on this day, the people of these small towns came together in public places to share in a Thanksgiving feast not even imaginable just a few weeks ago. 

A breather, a break, a respite, a haven, safe-harbor.  Salvation.  All these were words used by those attending today's public offerings in Waveland and Bay St. Louis to describe how they felt about receiving a free Thanksgiving dinner.

At the New Waveland Cafe, preparations start at 5:30 a.m. for a brunch to be followed later in the day by traditional Thanksgiving fare. As people file into the cafe for brunch, Joe Cocker's "A Little Help From My Friends" blares away in the background.  On the chorus people join in, loudly, becoming a spontaneous, if slightly off-key, back-up choir.

Ray Acosta sits drinking coffee. His weathered face and tired, raspy voice speak volumes.  "The people here have helped smooth out the rough edges," he says.  A senior citizen, Acosta notes that "Southern people are social people."  One of the things this cafe has done is give him and his wife, Cookie, a means to recapture a part of their pre-Katrina lives:  a daily gathering place for friends to catch up.  "Thanksgiving Day doesn't mean didalee-sqaut," he says.  "It's the day-to-day socializing that's important for us here."

The feast at New Waveland Cafe is a bittersweet one; in just two days, the entire complex of free goods and services that has built up around the cafe will be torn down.  And that worries a lot of people.

"The hardest part of Katrina hasn't even hit yet," said Terry Zimmerman of Waveland.  "That will happen two weeks after all these groups [offering free meals] have left and there's nowhere to turn.  We're really gonna miss them," he said. 

For others, like Michael Necaise, who often sleeps in his truck, this Thanksgiving meal is a heartbeat away from the reality of tomorrow:  "When this places closes, if I can't find some place else like it, I'll just pull out and leave," he says.

Feast turns into festival

In neighboring Bay St. Louis, a small army of yellow-shirted volunteers moves down a line of food servers in assembly line fashion.  They file out from under an open big top tent carrying trays containing plates of turkey, ham, yams, mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing and rolls to people waiting at picnic tables for their meals. 

Meanwhile, a group of folks from CityTeam ministries, a San Jose, Calif.-based organization, are packing up meals to go for those who can't stay.  The group even loaded up a minivan and made deliveries to people that couldn't drive or were disabled in some way, and not able to attend.  One of their deliveries included a carrying a batch of meals to an assisted-living facility in the area.


Yellow-shirted Calvary Chapel volunteers serve drinks and food at the Depot in Bay St. Louis.

Outside the train depot in downtown Bay St. Louis, which is now the de facto heart of city administration and county relief efforts, the Thanksgiving Day feast has all the trappings of a festival.  A stage for live music dominates the eating area.  There are inflated "bounce-arounds" set up for the children to romp on.  A face-painting booth was doing brisk business even before the official 11 o'clock start of the dinner.  Balloons for the kids were everywhere and even Clifford the Big Red Dog showed up, followed shortly by Superman and Mr. Incredible.   (Hot Tip:  Tomorrow, MSNBC.com has learned, Santa will be at the train depot, as well.)

And everywhere you turn, there are people with stories of amazing survival and endurance.  Like Derek Miller and his family.  Miller came to Bay St. Louis 13 years ago and lived in the KOA campground in a trailer.   Just eight months ago, he managed to put enough money together to buy a house.  It was obliterated by Katrina.  "Now I'm back to living in a camper at the KOA campground," Miller said, "not 50 feet from where I first started.  Am I thankful for this meal?  It goes without saying."

Then there's Ron and Dawn Laabs and their eight kids, four of whom are adopted.  The  Laabs actually left a profitable office supply goods business in Senatobia, Miss., to move to Bay St. Louis AFTER the hurricane hit, "to help the people rebuild," Laabs said. 

"I felt like the Lord called us here," Laabs said.  "I tried to talk myself out it, but God kept calling."  So he packed up the family and moved; his parents are running his business.   For the Laabs, the move isn't temporary.  "This is our home now," Dawn says, admitting she misses the newly remodeled house they left behind and have now put on the market for sale.  Their kids are now enrolled in school in Bay St. Louis.  "This is where we're staying," she said.  And so the Thanksgiving meal at the train depot takes on even more meaning for her and her family; they would have no other way of fixing dinner.  They currently live in a house they have committed to rebuild.  "And we don't even have a kitchen yet," she said.

For Kelley Kelley of Bay St. Louis the day's festivities meant nothing less profound than providing a good measure of hope.  "For anyone on the verge of giving up, of thinking it's not worth staying, that things are too overwhelming, this day helps us believe that everything will be alright after all," she said. 

Overcome with emotion, Kelley began to cry when describing how it made her feel that people would step outside their own busy lives to come help.  A small, face-painted flower began to dissolve down her left cheek as a trail of tears ran through it.  "Today has given us a moment of normalcy," she said.