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2 days after storm, Fla. churches gather to worship

SOUTHWEST FLORIDA (BP)–The absence of lights and air conditioning and even the destruction or damage of homes in the wake of Hurricane Charley could not prevent some churches from meeting on the first Lord’s Day following the category four storm that pummeled southwest Florida Aug. 13.

In North Port at South Biscayne Baptist Church — which is hosting the Florida Baptist Disaster Relief Command Center — members found that its building had electricity, unlike most of their homes.

South Biscayne Pastor John Cross, who slept at the church the night after the storm because his home did not have power, told the Florida Baptist Witness that he was concerned about the status of many church members — about 40 percent of whom live close to the area where Charley’s eye came ashore near Punta Gorda. He expected to learn more about their circumstances during worship services Aug. 15.

Asked what his message would be for the congregation, Cross said that he would be preaching from 2 Corinthians 1:3-4.

“God is the God of all comfort. In time in trouble, He’s going to comfort us,” Cross said. “But verse four says that we are comforted so that we can go and comfort others. I believe that God wants those of us who have not suffered great loss to now go and comfort and share His love with this region.”

Cross planned on getting out to visit in the area that afternoon. He praised the disaster relief efforts that were underway, noting that Florida Baptist Convention staffer Eddie Blackmon was in the church parking lot to lead set-up of the command center only a dozen hours after Charley had blown through North Port.

“I’m deeply, deeply grateful for the Florida Baptist Convention and our men’s ministry, Fritz Wilson [and] Eddie Blackmon,” Cross said. “These guys as well as other men throughout the southeast are leading the way. They’re coaching us.”

Cross said that he and his church family are “just going to try to love on people, pray for people and share God’s love” with both church members and non-church members.

The value of Southern Baptists’ method of cooperation is demonstrated powerfully during crises like Charley, Cross noted.

“The beauty of the spirit of cooperation among Southern Baptists — it’s the beauty of the body of Christ at work in a tangible way and it’s evidence of how the Scripture says being part of the body we all have gifts,” he said.

Cross praised the “extremely passionate” disaster relief volunteers who have “left family from all parts of the Southeast to come here and are excited about the opportunity to minister and to see some people come to Christ. To me that’s what it’s all about.”

McGregor Baptist Church in Fort Myers, Fla., made plain its meeting plans on a large, electronic sign: “YES, WE’RE HAVING CHURCH.” Although much of the community, located some 30 miles south of Punta Gorda, was without power, McGregor’s facilities were mostly operational, although some services were available only sporadically.

The celebratory Sunday morning worship service would seem odd to some, given the fact that most church members’ homes had suffered damage and some were destroyed. The rest, like Pastor Richard Powell, were still without power two days after Charley hit. Powell slept in his office the night before the service.

McGregor is hosting a North American Mission Board-directed chainsaw team from Tennessee that will clear downed trees.

Powell preached on Job 14:14: “If a man dies, will he ever live again?” as part of a sermon series — planned and prepared last October — on dealing with emotions. Noting that God was not surprised by Charley, he declared, “I believe the Lord has prepared and picked out a message for us.”

Holding the front page of the Aug. 14 edition of The Fort Myers News-Press with its huge headline, “DEVASTATED,” Powell said that while many in the area have suffered loss, only those who died were actually devastated.

“Property can be replaced, buildings can be rebuilt. We’re alive…. We are not devastated,” he said. The audience showed its agreement with a loud, sustained applause.

Powell told the congregation that “the single thing we fear the most [is] death,” adding, “I want the people to know how they can never, ever fear death.”

Noting Job’s travail, Powell said that some in attendance may have had their fear of death accentuated by Charley, “but you’re asking the question, when this life is over, what comes next?”

“The fear of death is because we’re not ready for what happens after this life is over, because we somehow think this life is never going to end. I’m going to tell you the truth, every person is going to die,” he said, citing Hebrews 9:27.

Powell said Job’s question could be rephrased, “Since all of us are going to die, how do we get ready to die and how do we get ready to live again?”

Powell said that there are five possible conditions in which people can die: unfaithful, unclean, unprepared, unafraid and unashamed, and there are five philosophies which stand in contrast to Christianity about what happens after death: secularism, science, communism, humanism and agnosticism.

“Do you know the great solution to the fear of death?” he asked. “It’s the confident knowledge of a personal relationship with the One who has defeated death — Jesus Christ.”

In an interview with the Florida Baptist Witness following the worship service, Powell said the church’s facilities fared well in spite of the storm, mainly losing some large trees. He estimated about two-thirds of the typical 3,600 attendance for McGregor’s three Sunday morning worship services were on hand Aug. 15.

Powell praised the disaster relief efforts of Southern Baptists, noting that the stationing of NAMB’s unit on the church property was an opportunity to further educate the congregation about the value of the Cooperative Program.

Fort Myers is not the Bible Belt and some residents are skeptical or even hostile to Southern Baptists, Powell said. But the disaster relief effort is “a great example for us to just let the community know we really do care, we really do care. We’re excited about doing that.”

Located west of Fort Myers — and closer to the path of Hurricane Charley as it swept up Charlotte Harbor– the congregation of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Fla., held its worship service Aug. 15 without the aid of air conditioning or lights, according to an e-mail from Pastor Tom Ascol. More than 200 attended, including some persons in the community whom members have been witnessing to recently.

“We gathered at 10 a.m., in the dark and heat, to weep, pray and praise the Lord for His goodness,” Ascol wrote. “One couple that lived in one of the worst hit areas of Punta Gorda had not been heard from since Thursday night. They said that they planned to ride the storm out. When they drove up on the parking lot today, they were met with many expressions of relief and love.”

Ascol said his message contained six points:

— “Think much of God’s mercy and grace that He gives in Jesus Christ. We were spared because of His mercy, not because of our righteousness or even because of the fervency of our prayers.

— “Express your praise to God in the presence of other people. Many who do not normally speak of God are doing just that. Those who know the Lord should be the first to express our praise of Him.

— “Meditate on the Day of Judgment. It will be much worse than a category four hurricane. Revelation 6:14-17 describes a scene of terror in the face of God’s judgment. Pray that many will be delivered — and encourage many to seek deliverance.

— “Meditate MORE on Jesus Christ’s deliverance. The reason that He came to earth was this: to deliver His people from sin and all its consequences. The cross was all about enduring God’s wrath against sin so that sinners may be delivered through faith in Christ. [In] 2 Corinthians 1:8-11, Paul acknowledges that trials are designed by God to teach us to trust in Him as our great deliverer.

— “Recognize that now is a great time to serve other people. Our Lord Jesus said that He did not come to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45). We should be like Him. People are hurting and are more open to being helped in the wake of this storm than previously, so help others in Jesus’ name!

— “When phone service is restored, call to check on friends. There are many members and friends that I have not heard from. Let’s make sure that no one is unaccounted for.”

Ascol wrote that church members exchanged information about their respective needs and made arrangements to assist with them.

In a follow-up e-mail message, Ascol said, “I am deeply impressed with the kindness of God’s people. Churches from all over have gotten word to me — through various and creative means — offering to send work crews and other assistance.

“Even unbelievers display the (image of God) in their self-sacrificing kindness. And then there are also the incredible displays of depravity — looting, stealing, etc. As I told one of our members a little while ago, standing in the rubble of what used to be his business office — often we see clear displays of both God’s image and man’s depravity not only in the same situation, but in the same person.”

    About the Author

  • James A. Smith Sr.