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Amid ongoing COVID-19 response, Southern Baptists help disaster survivors

HOUSTON (BP) — Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) leaders and volunteers continue meeting needs and sharing the hope of the Gospel in response both to the ongoing pandemic and to natural disasters in their communities. The challenges presented by COVID-19 have necessitated adjustments, but SBDR has sought to ensure a continued presence and continued service.

“I’ve been really encouraged to see Southern Baptists step up, encouraged but not surprised,” said Sam Porter, national director of SBDR through the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and Send Relief. “When needs arise, Southern Baptists don’t shy away from reaching out no matter what challenges are in their way.”

Volunteers and teams with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) have been providing support to the Houston Food Bank at food distribution sites in the Houston area, according to an April 23 report from the Southern Baptist Texan.

The size of these distributions required hundreds of volunteers to pack food boxes and load them into vehicles as well as the assistance of the National Guard to direct traffic, the Texan reported. Volunteers with SBDR prepared hot meals for the food bank workers and helped operate hospitality tents located onsite.

“The food bank had so much food and so many people who needed it,” SBDR volunteer Connie Roark told the Texan. “It was a great day for us. The food bank expected to serve 5,000 by the evening.”

During the same week, a tornado hit the small town of Onalaska, roughly 85 miles north of Houston, claiming the lives of at least three people, destroying dozens of homes and damaging at least 245 more. An SBTC volunteer crew arrived the following day to clear downed trees and debris.

Texas SBDR Scottie Stice told the Texan the pandemic has prompted changes to disaster relief policies. One of the changes is the inability of teams to stay near disaster sites overnight due to social distancing guidelines.

“It’s a new day in DR,” Stice said. “Now we try to do day trips as much as possible.”

“It’s a new day in DR. Now we try to do day trips as much as possible,” Stice said.

SBDR crews across North America are helping two disparate groups — those affected by the economic and medical impact of coronavirus as well as those whose lives are upturned by spring storms.

A seven-person Louisiana Baptist disaster relief team has been providing 800-1,000 meals a day in Lake Charles, La., and distributing them through two area churches. The volunteers follow strict sanitary and social distancing protocols while preparing and delivering the food.

For five days, volunteers in New Orleans provided meals to a homeless community that had been sheltered in a hotel in an effort to keep them safe from the coronavirus.

Most SBDR teams are primarily tending to their own states, but Louisiana volunteers assisted Mississippi SBDR crews after the state experienced its third week of tornados.

“With the recent tornadoes across the states of Louisiana and Mississippi, even though it has been in the midst of this coronavirus and the social distancing, when we called on our volunteers, they have been ready and willing to respond,” said Gibbie McMillan, men’s ministry and disaster relief strategist for Louisiana Baptists.

“We have not had any problems getting a full team to respond to those who are hurting. That’s the strength of Southern Baptists and the local church.”

Mississippi Baptists have had a strong presence across the state in assisting with food delivery to those in need. College students from various Baptist campus ministries participated in the effort. Hubert Yates, Mississippi’s SBDR director, reported that churches statewide are making meals for health care workers, creating homemade masks and checking in on the elderly.

At the same time, SBDR volunteers have made the necessary adjustments to respond to the recent string of tornadoes.

“We do appreciate our volunteers adapting and looking for ways to do ministry in these times,” Yates said. “It’s not the way we’re used to doing things. We have had to look at changes that need to be made not only for our protection but for the protection of those we are reaching out to as well.”

Southern Baptist volunteers from at least 19 state conventions — from New England to Arizona — are bringing help, healing and hope.

Through COVID-19 response-related projects, SBDR has prepared 38,260 meals, distributed more than 224,000 meals and worked more than 45,000 volunteer hours. In all of their various responses in 2020, SBDR volunteers report more than 800 Gospel presentations and 214 professions of faith.