Amid fallen trees & debris, Baptist teams bring help & hope

Florida Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers pray with homeowner Margaret Oettinger, a Holocaust survivor, after removing a large tree at her home near Palm Coast, Fla. (Ted Wilcox/NAMB)Though tragedy has been a recurrent theme in Holocaust survivor Margaret Oettinger's life, so has hope.

When a large tree fell on her property during Hurricane Matthew's destruction, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers, including Florida Baptist chainsaw teams, were there to provide help and hope.

As volunteers cut away the tree, Oettinger became one of many helped by SBDR teams in recent days. And the teams didn't just come bearing chainsaws. They came with prayer as well.

"We worked in teams and often visited folks in groups of two or three," Alabama Baptist chaplain Sara Witherington said. "We had a lot of great visits. .... Just to be able to pray over others and comfort their overwhelmed senses was a blessing, and we saw real fruit from that."

Witherington was paired with fellow Alabama chaplain Dan Wiggins during an emotional and life-changing visit to the home of Floridian Cheryl Briggs.

"It was amazing how things worked out in this situation," Witherington said. "Dan was across the street praying with another family when he saw what looked like a huge pile of debris outside Cheryl's home. He went over there and began praying with her."

Briggs, along with her husband, Tony Benvienuto, had extensive damage to both the outside and inside of their home. Fully grown trees littered their yard, their branches crushing the inside of the home, knocking out windows and splintering furniture.

"We didn't know it at the time, but Tony had just about given up on the church," Witherington said. "After our first visit, we decided to come back. The mud-out crews had followed Dan across the street the first time to begin tearing out Sheetrock and fixing the inside of the home. Chainsaw crews were also working on the outside. But there was a lot to be done."

When the chaplains came back to continue praying and the crews to finish the job, Briggs and Benvienuto wept.

"Tony grabbed his chest and told Dan that we'd 'given him more than we'd ever know,'" Witherington recounted. "He said we'd given him his heart back."

Briggs explained to Witherington that her husband hadn't been to church in years because he had "lost faith in people helping and caring about others."

"Cheryl told me on our second visit that her husband's faith was restored," Witherington said. "Tony had told his wife that SBDR and all our work had showed him people do care and that the church is full of caring people too."

More than 1,550 SBDR teams are active in Florida, Georgia, South and North Carolina hurricane relief efforts. With approximately 127 Bibles distributed to the four affected states and 61 Gospel presentations made, SBDR teams are using the storm's tragic aftermath as a means of reaching North America with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Twenty-one states already have teams on the ground or in the process of sending teams this weekend. According to Baptist disaster relief director Mark Gauthier in Virginia, Hurricane Matthew left most of its most significant damage up and down the coast of North and South Carolina. SBDR laundry units from across North America are being called to the Carolinas as well as feeding units and chainsaw crews.

North Carolina disaster relief coordinator Gaylon Moss believes "there are many more weeks of hard work to go" before anyone on the state's Atlantic coast will be back to their previous daily routines. Moss, though, does see promise in the work that SBDR and various state disaster relief teams have accomplished thus far.

"Though some towns in the Carolinas are completely cut off and under water, we've got adoption plans in place for state disaster relief crews to come in here and do all they can," Moss said. "Many units and crews are headed here, or are already here, to help. So, we're very blessed in that."

Those wishing to donate to SBDR relief can contact the Baptist convention in their state or visit donations.namb.net/dr-donations. For phone donations, call 1-866-407-6262 or mail checks to NAMB, P.O. Box 116543, Atlanta, GA 30368-6543. Designate checks for "Disaster Relief."

Josie Rabbitt is a writer for the North American Mission Board.

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