Disaster relief volunteers reveal ‘heartbeat of Southern Baptists’

Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers are already preparing hot meals for storm evacuees in Florida. (Jerry Favorite/Florida Baptist Convention)Two days after Hurricane Matthew hit the Anastasia Island community in St. Augustine, Fla., Walter West gathered his flock to learn of damages suffered by church members and the community alike.

Although a tree tore through the church’s office building, West, pastor of Anastasia Baptist Church, said destruction to the church was minimal. “However, a lot of church members had flood damage, tree damage and their entire belongings ruined by the flooding.”

Residents along the barrier islands surrounding the nation’s oldest city had been evacuated prior to the storm and could only return to their homes late Saturday after the killer storm passed through on Friday, Oct. 7.

All along the beaches and intracoastal waterways, homes were flooded, and homeowners began the heartbreaking task of tearing out waterlogged belongings and throwing them to the streets. As the storm surge hit, dozens of beachfront homes had foundations ripped from underneath the structures.  

Usually on the second Sunday of each month, Anastasia Baptist Church members go into the community to serve their neighbors. This Sunday, neighbors helped each other recover from fallen trees and widespread wind-and-water damage. The church with two sites usually has 1,600 in attendance. This Sunday brought only 225 to worship.

“We are only two days into this; many residents have not come back,” said West. “We are still assessing the damage. We are finding more and more homes damaged, and more and more needs.”

He urged Florida Baptists to “pray for perseverance. If you have chainsaws and can cut down trees, and [can] help clean water-damaged homes, please come. These are the essentials for people as they struggle right now.”

From Melbourne in the south to Fernandina in the north, Florida Baptists were out in their communities ministering to needs following the hurricane’s slow-moving assault on the Atlantic coast towns and cities. On Oct. 10, three days after the storm, one million Floridians—as far as 30 miles inland—were still without power.

Under the direction of the state’s Emergency Operations Center, Florida Baptist Disaster Relief mobile kitchens moved into place at First Baptist Church in Melbourne and First Baptist Church of Palm Coast and began preparing meals on Oct. 9.  By nightfall, the kitchen in Melbourne was moved as power became available in the region and damage appeared minimal. 

Other kitchens were located farther north, including Kentucky Baptists’ mobile unit at North Jacksonville Baptist Church, and Alabama Baptists’ mobile unit stationed at Turning Point Baptist Church in St. Augustine.

FBDR-trained cleanup and recovery assessors traveled throughout the region to discover needs of homeowners. In the days and weeks ahead, trained volunteers will come to North Florida with mold remediation and cleaning products to help those who have no place else to turn.

Volunteer Chris McNeal journeyed from Melbourne to Flagler County to assess needs. In Flagler, he met a multigenerational family whose roof had been pierced by a tree. “I shared what we do and told them we didn’t charge for our repairs so that we could share Jesus Christ with them,” he said. Their reaction was disbelief.

When he asked if he could pray for the family, including small children, grandmother and great-grandmother, “They said, ‘I guess it won’t hurt,’ ” recalled McNeal, a member of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz. “It was obvious the family didn’t know much about prayer, and [it appeared] as if they had never heard the name Jesus.”

McNeal marked this work order as “spiritual priority No. 1.  I am praying for this family and believe we can make a difference in their lives.”

Tommy Green, executive director-treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention, visited the Palm Coast site Oct. 9. “The level of professionalism demonstrated by our disaster relief teams reflects the significance of preparation,” he said.

“Our volunteers are called to serve others in the hours of crisis. The servant heart of disaster relief enables the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be shared in a compassionate and loving manner.”

When the storm hit, boat captain Eric Reese, a member of Cornerstone Baptist Church in New Port Richey, rode his motorcycle to Lake Yale Baptist Conference Center in Leesburg, where FBDR had set up a command center. When the team moved the kitchen to Palm Coast, he followed the caravan.

While serving alongside feeding unit volunteers, many of them twice his age, the 27-year-old opened cans and lifted Red Cross cambros used to transport food to neighborhoods. “I told my wife if I could help I would,” he said. “I could do anything in logistics they asked of me.”

After working a 12-hour day Oct. 9, the young man rode his bike back to New Port Richey, some 200 miles away, to get back to work.

Green expressed appreciation for the “cooperative spirit” between our state conventions, adding that it “reveals the heartbeat of Southern Baptists. We are grateful for disaster relief teams from Alabama and Kentucky who are helping us in Florida.”

A North Carolina kitchen arrived Oct. 8 but returned back to the state after the storm caused major damage there.

Chris Coram, associate pastor at North Jacksonville Baptist Church, said his church was “humbled and honored to host the Kentucky Baptists feeding [unit] at our church. It’s humbling for people to come help us from all over the nation and have first-hand experience of our Cooperative Program dollars at work.”

On Oct. 9, church members took up an offering for disaster relief and received more than $5,000, he reported.

After accessing damage of churches in the Jacksonville Baptist Association, Rick Wheeler, lead missional strategist for the JBA, reported that most churches in the association sustained little structural damage.

“Most did pretty well. Cedar Creek Baptist Church lost their sign, and Oak Harbor Baptist Church had some flooding.” 

“Remarkably, nearly all of the churches east of the intracoastal received only light damage and most had services [Oct. 9]. We are grateful—let the cleanup begin!”

To contribute to Florida Baptist Disaster Relief, send a check to Florida Baptist Convention, 1230 Hendricks Ave., Jacksonville, FL 32207; or go to www.flbaptist.org.

Barbara Denman is director of communications for the Florida Baptist Convention.

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