HEREFORD, Ariz. (BP)–While firefighters wage war against a southern Arizona wildfire, local Southern Baptists are ministering to each other and — despite personal losses — ministering anywhere they can in their communities.
As of Wednesday morning, June 22, the Monument Fire, which officials estimate is 45 percent contained, had scorched 27,200 acres and destroyed 61 homes in the Coronado National Forest in southeast Arizona.
Southern Baptists from Hereford, Sierra Vista and many outlying areas are involved in assisting people affected by the fire. Tommy Stevens, director of evangelism/missions for Cochise Baptist Association, was traveling Monday, June 20, but he and wife Liz left their home open to evacuees.
In Hereford, a small ranching community southeast of Sierra Vista and one of several small communities evacuated, Mike Bergman is pastor of Country Estates Baptist Church. Bergman said fire officials used the church as a command center for four days, with many personnel sleeping in the sanctuary.
Three of Country Estates’ families lost homes to the fire, including Ed and Alexa Cottingham. Ed is treasurer of the Cochise association.
“Ed is a wonderful Christian man taking all this in stride,” Bergman said of his friend.
Bergman also serves as a Department of Public Safety chaplain, spending about four hours a day serving DPS officers and firefighters. While in the area, he looks for members’ homes, phoning in status updates.
Bergman said church members are spread throughout Benson, Bisbee, Tucson and Sierra Vista. Those not evacuated are taking in evacuees or helping with livestock.
“The whole church is taking people in and calling each other,” Bergman said. “It’s pleasant to watch Christ in them ministering to one another.”
The evacuation did not stop members of Country Estates from regular worship. Members contacted the Windemere Hotel in Sierra Vista and were given a discount for meeting rooms, and a nearby music store loaned the congregation a keyboard.
About 120 members attended a worship service Sunday, June 19.
Sierra Vista’s Fairfield-Marriott hotel provided office space for the church, as did a local Re-Max real estate office.
“Just all kinds of things are happening,” Berman said. “God’s people are pretty resourceful.”
In Sierra Vista, members of First Baptist Church and Village Meadows Baptist Church are collecting food and water for evacuees. Two members served as evacuation coordinators. The two churches also have offered their facilities for evacuees if current facilities hit capacity.
Roger Bayes, associate pastor at First Baptist, has been checking in on evacuees at two local schools. Bayes said many church members were evacuated to the schools while other First Baptist members are welcoming evacuees to their homes.
The Sierra Vista church almost became a statistic Friday, June 17, as winds spread a backfire across a nearby highway to within 300 yards of the church. Forty children from the church’s daycare center had to be evacuated, Bayes said.
First Baptist Sierra Vista is serving as a staging area for Arizona Southern Baptist disaster relief kitchen and shower/laundry units. Lary Hyde, Arizona Baptists’ disaster relief task force leader, said he expects both units to be operational Thursday.
In addition to helping people, many Southern Baptists are taking care of the animals that are an important part of life in southeast Arizona where many families own horses and various livestock.
Brian Kelly, pastor of Sierra Vista Cowboy Church and River of Faith Cowboy Church in Benson, has been coordinating animal evacuation and rescue. Most of his members have not been affected personally, Kelly said.
When Hereford and other ranching areas were evacuated June 9, volunteers from River of Faith Cowboy and Sierra Vista churches and Canelo Cowboy Church went to work with their own trucks and horse trailers to move animals to safety.
“Goats, sheep, pigs, horses, you name it,” Kelly said. “We moved 18 pigs, several goats, eight cows and a 2,000-pound bull. We’re housing 250 horses at the Sierra Vista Riding Club. Twenty to 25 church members are working every day — some have taken time off work to care for the animals.”
Blessings abound there as well. The $800-to-$1,000-a-day cost to care for the animals has been offset by many donations. A Phoenix feed store sent a semi-trailer of horse feed and a company from California also sent feed. Closer to home, a local church donated hay and alfalfa.
For a rural area that boasts small ranches, many residents include their horses among loved ones.
“For a lot of them, [horses] are like their children,” Kelly said.
Whether caring for those with two legs or four, Southern Baptists have stepped in to help in a time of emergency.
Bergman may have said it best: “What we have here is a golden opportunity to minister.”
Jean Bihn is a freelance writer for Portraits magazine, the publication of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention.