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Aid worker reports progress on front lines

CHENNAI, India (BP)–Four days after the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami left millions traumatized in Southeast Asia, the Hindustan Bible Institute in Chennai, India, sent out a call for volunteers to help provide practical relief and spiritual guidance in the face of extreme disaster.

Steve Nelson, director of pastoral care for the Bledsoe Baptist Association in middle Tennessee, heard the call and acted immediately. By asking friends and ministry partners to help him raise money for the cost of the trip and an additional $10,000 in aid money, Nelson received nearly $30,000 in funds within days.

He left Jan. 10 for 12 days in the Chennai region, where he is training volunteers for crisis counseling and helping set up tents for the thousands of families in the area who lost their homes when entire villages were destroyed by water.

In an e-mail update Jan. 14, Nelson said his team with the Bible institute had put up 24 tents that day.

“We dug holes with our bare hands in the sand and got the tents up in about three hours,” he wrote, adding that even the smallest children helped haul tent poles to certain spots.

“The people expressed their thanks, and we had prayer with them before we left,” Nelson said.

HBI, which has had a longtime relationship with the Bledsoe Baptist Association, also is running medical clinics under some of the tents they’ve helped set up in the area. Some encouraging news is that local leaders have assured HBI they will be permitted to set up a church once the village settles in a permanent location, Nelson said.

“Whatever you call it — church, temple or something else — we need a place of peace where we can go and be quiet,” one local leader said.

Nelson and the HBI team also have been prayerwalking and assessing needs in order to make plans for further relief work. He noted that many villages have moved inland up to half a mile because people are afraid to be near the ocean.

“Please keep these people in your prayers that they may come to know that God is real and He cares about them,” Nelson wrote. “They feel so helpless and cannot see any future. May they see His love in us and open their hearts to the Savior.”

After traveling six hours Jan. 15 to one of the hardest hit areas on the coast of India, Nelson reported that “it looks like the place has been bombed.” Having served nearly eight years as director of hunger concerns for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Nelson has viewed much destruction in the wake of war, earthquakes and other disasters. He said the current situation in India surpasses the devastation he witnessed in war-torn Bosnia.

“The people are numb with despair and desperately need crisis counseling — basically just someone to listen to their story as everyone around them is in the same shape,” he wrote. “HBI has trained about 70, but many more are needed.”

Nelson explained that many people not only have lost loved ones but also lost all means of supporting themselves. The fishing industry has been eliminated since boats and nets were destroyed and consumers fear the fish have been feeding on dead bodies at sea and are now contaminated. Also, those who relied on agriculture are at a loss because the salt water swept many miles inland and ruined the soil.

Even as they try to start their lives anew, the people affected by the tsunami continue to be fearful of the ocean, Nelson said.

“The village wanted to express their thanks for the help that has been given, so they set up a bench and asked the three of us to sit down,” he wrote. “The village gathered on the ground in front of us and expressed their thanks. We shared how God understands and cares about them. As we were talking, someone saw a wave hit a bit harder than usual on a rock and screamed that the ocean was coming back. The people screamed and began to run with some crying in fear.

“These folks are not in good shape. So, we prayed for them that Jesus would hold back the water and give them peaceful rest without fear.”

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  • Erin Curry