EDITOR’S NOTE: A story about a church’s recovery from wildfires in the Smoky Mountains last year follows this story.
GATLINBURG, Tenn. (BP) — Ruth Martin isn’t likely to ever forget Nov. 28, 2016 — the day she became homeless.
The 91-year-old widow of a Tennessee Baptist pastor left her home of 40-plus years that night with just the clothes she was wearing.
As wildfire surrounded her home atop a mountain road overlooking the city of Gatlinburg, she and her son and daughter, who also had houses on the property, did what has come naturally over the years — they prayed.
With their cars blocked by fallen trees, they did not know if they could even get off the mountain. Martin’s daughter, Debbie Gillespie, said she prayed, “Lord, if You want us off this mountain, You will have to send someone to get us.” A moment after that prayer, she saw the headlights of a truck just a few houses down the mountain.
Martin’s son, Mark, ran down to find a family evacuating from a rental house. The family willingly gave them space in their loaded truck with only the caveat of “we have to leave now.”
What sustained the elderly Martin that night and in the months after the fire, is what has sustained her for her entire life — a deep faith rooted in her love for and trust in Jesus Christ.
Martin, known as “Mama Ruth” to family and friends, said she learned to trust the Lord not long after her husband, the late Clyde Martin, entered the ministry shortly after they were married in 1950.
Clyde Martin, who died in 2013, ministered for 70 years, serving as pastor of numerous Baptist churches in eastern Tennessee, including Roaring Fork Baptist Church in Gatlinburg, which was destroyed by fire and is in the rebuilding process.
Times were hard, Ruth Martin recalled. Pastors and evangelists didn’t get rich back then, she acknowledged with a chuckle. “When things get tough, you learn to trust in the Lord. He never lets you down.”
That faith she learned then helped her in the aftermath of the wildfire when her son Mark returned to the mountaintop to find all three homes reduced to rubble and ashes. It continued even as she learned she did not have enough insurance to help rebuild on the site where she and her husband had moved in 1975.
“The Lord proves Himself sufficient,” Martin affirmed.
John and Kaye Thomas, who coordinated Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief efforts after the wildfire and are helping with rebuilding efforts, learned of the Martins’ plight through First Baptist Church in Sevierville, where both the Thomases and Martins are members.
They sent teams in to help sift through ashes and chainsaw teams that spent about three weeks cutting the numerous trees that had fallen on the property amid a series of wildfires across 16,000-plus acres in the Smoky Mountains from late November through mid-December in 2016, claiming 14 lives and damaging or destroying some 2,000 structures.
Kaye Thomas discussed with the family the need to obtain a line of credit before beginning to rebuild. “We didn’t know what we’d do,” son Mark acknowledged, noting that they had insurance but it was not nearly enough. “We knew we would trust the Lord.”
They began to explore credit options “but the Lord shut the door everywhere we went,” Thomas recalled.
“I’m having faith in their faith until my faith is strong enough,” Kaye Thomas said with a laugh.
As people heard about the Martins’ needs, gifts of money and materials began to come in. As a result, First Baptist Church and Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief have led rebuilding efforts on two homes — one for Mark and one for Ruth and Debbie.
The unexpected gifts are no surprise to the Martin family. “My spiritual family came to my rescue when I needed it,” Ruth Martin said. “I don’t know what we would have done without disaster relief teams and local volunteers.
“God’s family is going to take care of each other,” she affirmed.
Martin is a strong believer in the promise found in Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to His purpose” (CSB).
“There was nothing good about that fire,” Martin said, “but when I look at the good that has come out of it and see what God has accomplished, I’m just grateful for what He has done.”
Daughter Debbie Gillespie agreed. “God will take care of His own. He has proven it over and over and He uses His children to be His hands and feet.”
Gillespie said their plight will make them more sensitive than ever to the needs of others. “We know what it’s like to be left without clothes and not know where you will go the next day.”
She, along with her mother and brother, are grateful for those who have helped and will help.
“We pray that people will feel the presence of the Lord when they step on that mountain,” she said.
Builders for Christ aid
By Lonnie Wilkey/Tennessee Baptist and Reflector
GATLINBURG, Tenn. (BP) — A wildfire may have destroyed Roaring Fork Baptist Church’s buildings, but it didn’t derail the spirit of church members.
Once the shock wore off last November, “we began to figure out what to do next,” said Kim McCroskey, pastor of the Gatlinburg, Tenn., congregation.
“We knew that we had a lot of work ahead of us. Because of that, we went back to business as quickly as possible. That helped us more than anything,” McCroskey said.
Roaring Fork was one of three Tennessee Baptist churches — along with First Baptist Church and Banner Baptist Church, also in Gatlinburg — damaged by the wildfires that swept through Gatlinburg and Sevier County last November. Roaring Fork was the only one that lost its entire facility, including a sanctuary and a fellowship hall used for children’s ministry.
Church members “never felt sorry for ourselves. We never had the thought of not rebuilding,” McCroskey said.
On the Sunday following the Nov. 28 wildfire, the church began meeting at Camp Smoky, a Baptist camp owned by Sevier County Association of Baptists, and then met under an open-air 300-seat temporary pavilion during the summer before returning to the camp when cooler weather set in.
McCroskey challenged Roaring Fork members that first Sunday to move forward and not let the fire keep them from the ministry God called them to do. “I just let them know that we were going to rise above the ashes and be bigger and stronger than ever before,” he recounted.
Roaring Fork has continued its basic ministries, including a bus ministry for children, despite limited space at Camp Smoky, and Children’s Bible Drill.
And God has continued to bless the congregation, McCroskey said, noting there have been some 50 salvation decisions at Roaring Fork since the fire last November, counting local people, some construction volunteers and even tourists.
Satan “underestimated us,” the pastor said. “If Satan probably had this to do over, he would leave us alone. God can see out there where he [Satan] can’t and God knew what was going to be coming in the future.”
What was coming is currently under construction — a new sanctuary that almost doubles the seating of the previous sanctuary, from 229 to 448, as well as a new family life center that will house both children’s and youth ministries.
In December, McCroskey received a call from Builders for Christ, an organization based in Birmingham, Ala., that builds a church every year. The church they had scheduled to assist for 2017 had canceled on Nov. 29, the day after the fire, and leaders for the organization heard about Roaring Fork’s plight.
“I really didn’t know anything about Builders for Christ,” McCroskey said. “They found me. It was a God thing.”
Since the rebuilding effort began the week before Memorial Day, volunteers from Tennessee and 21 other states have traveled to Gatlinburg to help Roaring Fork.
“Every day I come in, and I’ve been here every day since this started, it’s incredible to see how these people work,” McCroskey said. “They are a visible example of how the local church should work…. They’re just happy to be giving up their time and paying their own way to come here to give their gifts and talents to rebuild our buildings.”
The volunteer labor will save the church $1 million in rebuilding costs, by the pastor’s estimate, a vital savings because insurance did not cover the total cost to rebuild. In addition, the church purchased two lots adjacent to the church when homeowners decided not to rebuild.
Mike Hinkle, a member of Candies Creek Baptist Church in Charleston, Tenn., gave up his summer to serve as general contractor. “I’ve been wanting to do something like this for years and this came along,” said Hinkle, who is a volunteer for both Builders for Christ and Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief.
From his experience with his own construction company, Hinkle was amazed at how quickly the building permits and other facets of the project came together.
Hinkle, however, was quick to give all the credit to the Lord, noting, “This is a God-size task and God makes it all happen.”
McCroskey said he is grateful not only for Builders for Christ, but for help provided immediately after the fire by Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers and the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. DR volunteers helped with the demolition of the family life center.
The assistance showed the congregation that “we’re part of an organization that is more than smoke and mirrors,” McCroskey said. “It’s an organization that cares.”
The pastor asked for continued prayers as construction continues at Roaring Fork, aiming toward moving into the new facilities in November. Tennessee Baptists are welcome to continue to volunteer, he added. “Come up and put on a hard hat and a pair of gloves. There’s a lot of jobs to do,” said McCroskey, who can be reached at 865-898-4428.
McCroskey was featured in an episode of Radio B&R, a news podcast of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, which can be accessed at http://baptistandreflector.org/radio-br-ep-10-rebuilding/