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After Ivan, churches shine light amid storm’s destruction

PENSACOLA, Fla. (BP)–Churches across damaged communities are finding opportunities to minister in the midst of the tragedy caused by Hurricane Ivan.

“This is the worst [storm damage] that any of the old-timers can remember,” Ron Lentine, pastor of Myrtle Grove Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla., told Baptist Press. “We’ve never seen this kind of tree damage. They tell us it may be weeks before we get power and water. But in the midst of this disaster we can be a light.”

Lentine had been working with a team of church members preparing to travel to south Florida to help victims of Hurricanes Charley and Frances. They never made it.

“I guess God had other plans for us. Now we’re helping our own community,” he said. “If through this disaster we can reach people who otherwise have hardened their hearts toward God, then God has made this redemptive.”

Wind damage and flooding from Hurricane Ivan left much of the Florida Panhandle in pieces. Further north, tornadoes were spawned by the storm. More than 500,000 people have no power, no water and no phone service.

Disaster relief teams from 13 state Baptist conventions have been deployed to Florida and Alabama, including feeding units, chainsaw crews and communication teams. Their presence is making a difference.

“We’ve already got people working to cover roofs and cut up fallen trees,” Lentine said. “We’re also able to feed thousands in our parking lot from the Arkansas feeding unit. This gives us a great opportunity to touch lives.”

A few miles down the road, East Brent Baptist Church in Pensacola was assessing damage to its own buildings. Each of the nine buildings received significant water and wind damage.

“We had a lot of roof damage which meant a lot of water damage,” said Jeff Helms, singles minister at the church. “Some of our air conditioner units that were on top of a roof were lifted off and thrown around. That caused a lot of damage as well.”

The church housed 127 people in the gym during the worst of the storm.

“We lost power and water early, so we collected rain water outside in 75 gallon drums for people to use [in the restrooms],” Helms said. “Then we had a gas leak and had to find out where that was in the middle of the night. It got a little rough out there for a while.”

The church staff is still trying to determine how their members fared throughout the storm.

“Communication is so poor [without phone service],” Helms said. “We haven’t heard of any members who had their homes destroyed, but we just don’t know yet about everyone.”

At First Baptist Church in Flomaton, Ala., church members met for Sunday morning worship in the fellowship hall to share their storm experiences. Water was available, but power was still out four days after a tornado ripped through the town.

“[During the worst of the storm] I kept hearing God say, ‘Peace be still,'” Mildred Boutwell told fellow church members. “My daughter has lost her home and our home lost a roof, but God cares for us.”

The pastor, Tim McKnight, read Scripture during the makeshift service but also gave a warning.

“For those of you who know Jesus Christ, you know peace,” he said. “But the destruction you see around you now is nothing like the destruction you’ll see after death if you don’t know Jesus Christ.

“Believers have an opportunity to share this peace. The witness that you are in caring for the needs of others is going to be a witness for the Lord. The best thing we can do as a church is volunteer in the community and use this opportunity to share Jesus Christ with others.”

McKnight cancelled mid-week services, encouraging church members to spend the time helping others.

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  • Sherri Brown