HOUSTON (BP)–No one was surprised that Southern Baptists in Texas would come to the aid of Hurricane Katrina victims, but the magnitude of the volunteer response amazed even the most optimistic leaders at Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
In Houston, a tightly organized operation was set in place to minister to the evacuees headed to the city where, four years earlier, a flood also caused widespread devastated. Thousands of sympathetic Houston-area volunteers were processed quickly, with many of them in place by Sept. 6.
In his role as the newly appointed incident commander in Houston, SBTC’s Gibbie McMillan, missions services coordinator over disaster relief, began training volunteers offering to help at the Astrodome and George R. Brown Convention Center. When displaced people from New Orleans’ Superdome quickly filled the Astrodome to capacity, the convention center provided overflow space under the direction of an Operation Compassion coalition of faith-based groups.
Training at Second Baptist Church in Houston held on Saturday of the Labor Day weekend attracted 1,000 volunteers, growing tenfold on Sunday and to 20,000 on Monday.
The Sunday-Monday sessions drew so many people to the training at Second Baptist that every route for a mile away required traffic direction by police. When the huge church lot was filled, volunteers parked at area grocery stores, restaurants and even a liquor store, walking several blocks to the training site. Although only Southern Baptists can join SBTC disaster relief units and wear their official yellow shirts, a shrouded Muslim woman with a Middle Eastern accent found her way to the meeting, joining hundreds of other Muslims training to serve with their faith group.
Crowds were so large that overflow seating was utilized at the Houston mega-church and the large number turned away remained for an impromptu session added afterward. Operation Compassion scheduled four more training sessions in the coming weeks.
“These volunteers represent a broad spectrum of denominations and religions,” SBTC communications director Gary Ledbetter said. Though dominated by Baptists, the 131 faith-based organizations included Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, charismatics, Pentecostals, Church of God, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, Quakers and Mennonites. Other religions represented included Jews, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Bahai and Muslims.
As of Tuesday, Sept. 6, the 30,000 volunteers in Houston assumed responsibility for supplying 240 volunteers for each meal shift at the convention center for the next month. Churches in the Houston area are contributing millions of dollars to cover the cost while mobilizing members to volunteer their time.
The command center had coordinated the placement of neatly arranged beds, a color-coded shower schedule and a vast array of services when the first group of evacuees arrived.
Second Baptist pastor Ed Young Sr. told those gathered for training that a Southern Baptist minister would be praying in the name of Jesus. He invited volunteers from other faiths to understand why this was appropriate in a Christian church. “In this church we will pray in our way,” he explained, inviting others to approach God in regard to their own convictions.
Young said Houstonians understand the impact of a flood of great magnitude, referring to the 2001 devastation that put much of metropolitan Houston underwater. He called the fact that tens of thousands came together from so many faith-based groups a miracle.
“Suffering brought us together,” Young told the audience. He reminded volunteers that the people evacuated from New Orleans have found hope, describing the expression of one evacuee as, “Most people didn’t know we even existed. Now we have hope.”
SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards, as a lifelong resident of Louisiana until a little over 10 years ago, seized the opportunity in the days following the hurricane to promote churches of refuge throughout the state for taking in evacuees or assisting with their transition. “My seminary is damaged and under water. Many of my pastor friends and their congregations are scattered by the hurricane. Even more disturbing are thousands upon thousands who are homeless, destitute and lacking the basics in human hygiene,” Richards stated.
In light of the nationwide Southern Baptist strategy called Houses of Hope, Richards said he will encourage SBTC churches to join the initiative announced by North American Mission Board President Robert E. (Bob) Reccord Sept. 5.
Richards praised the thousands of disaster relief volunteers trained by SBTC who are on the front lines in Louisiana and Texas meeting needs.
“Some of them in peril of life, distributed food and comforted the suffering,” Richards said. “This relief effort will be ongoing for months. There will be no quick fix.”
The Texas Salvation Army (TSA) 53-foot mobile feeding kitchen with a convoy of 20 TSA canteen units and 60 SBTC disaster relief volunteers was one of the first units into Baton Rouge, having waited out the storm in Beaumont, Texas, Aug. 29.
Expecting to offer 25,000 meals per day, the TSA mobile kitchen unit fed 35,000 people the first full day of operations. Led by SBTC’s director of disaster relief, Bill Davenport, the group soon moved toward New Orleans where holed-up residents of the French Quarter received their first meals after the storm subsided. Other volunteers moved into suburbs like Kenner where the staff of two hospitals arrived late Thursday for a meal.
Southern Baptist churches that had no previous experience in disaster relief had requested the training necessary to serve in Red Cross and Salvation Army units. On Saturday following the storm, the 60 Texans registered for training swelled to 163, packing an SBTC conference room in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Though traditionally many disaster relief volunteers are retired, this early group included an architect, meter reader, well driller, physical therapist, secretaries and many more — most of them under the age of 50. Thirty of that group agreed to head out the next day to Baton Rouge, joining 30 more already assigned from existing SBTC units.
At least nine more training opportunities have been added to the schedule at SBTC’s office in Grapevine, Texas. The state convention will send 60-member teams in succession to Baton Rouge over the coming months.
“When God directed me to ask Gibbie McMillan to come to the SBTC, I knew he possessed the qualities necessary to build the type of missions services that would be needed,” Richards said of the Louisiana native. With skills in heavy equipment operation, construction, chaplaincy and pastoring, Richards said McMillan’s expertise made him “invaluable during the Katrina disaster.” With Davenport carrying out the work in devastated areas and McMillan in Houston, Richards expressed gratitude for the leadership in place.
Still heartbroken over the disaster, Richards admitted, “The mystique of New Orleans may never be the same.” However, he quickly added, “By the grace of God, we can see lives that will never be the same because we share Jesus with them.”