SNOWFLAKE, Ariz. (BP)–As the largest fire in Arizona history rages in the eastern part of the state, Southern Baptists have responded with compassion in Jesus’ name.
The Wallow Fire has burned more than 730 square miles, destroyed 31 homes and cost around $25 million to fight, MSNBC reported. It has also forced the evacuation of multiple towns, prompting churches, associations and the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention to launch ministry efforts for victims.
The Arizona Southern Baptist Convention deployed a shower unit to Lakeside June 8 and had kitchen crews on standby, Larry Hyde, Arizona disaster relief state coordinator, told Baptist Press.
The shower unit was stationed at a shelter to support the approximately 130 evacuees staying there, Hyde said.
“Our shower trailer units … provide the shower services that a lot of the shelter areas lack,” Hyde said. “This gives us excellent opportunities to put our disaster relief, our Southern Baptist people in personal contact with the disaster victims and gives us many good opportunities to be able to minister and share Jesus with the displaced people.”
One beneficiary of the shower unit was Franz Tomlinson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Alpine. Tomlinson and his wife Yvonne were forced to evacuate Alpine June 2. He told BP that the church building was not in danger and that only one or two structures in Alpine had burned. But the fire did put the congregation’s VBS, scheduled to begin July 11, in jeopardy, Tomlinson said.
The fire also inspired Tomlinson to consider becoming involved in disaster relief because of how grateful he was for the shower unit, where he also did laundry.
“We have not been involved in [disaster relief] before, but I am hoping to lead our church to get involved in it when we get back to Alpine,” Tomlinson said.
One association in eastern Arizona used the fire as an opportunity to establish an emergency relief fund.
“We have set up a fund to assist folks who have been evacuated,” said Jim Pratt, director of evangelism and missions at the Desert Pines Baptist Association in Snowflake.
The association received one gift of $2,000 to begin the fund and had commitments for another $1,500 to $1,800, Pratt told BP. Pastors and disaster relief workers disburse money from the fund in the form of $25 pre-paid Visa cards as they encounter needs, up to a maximum of $100 per family.
The fund has provided numerous opportunities to minister in Christ’s name, including to Mormons, Pratt said.
Assistance will be distributed to residents in the cities of Alpine, Springerville and Eagar — all of which have a Southern Baptist church — and Greer, where resort ministry is conducted between June and September.
Among the most remarkable ministry efforts in the association occurred at the home of Larry Hamblen, pastor of Jesus First Church in Eagar.
Though Eagar was evacuated, Hamblen lives 34 miles from the church near Show Low. So when his church members left their homes in Eagar, he hosted or found housing in his neighborhood for nearly 30 of them.
That included people living in his house, in tents on his lawn, in trailers on his property and at three neighbors’ houses. The evacuees ate meals together and enjoyed Christian fellowship, Hamblen said in an interview.
“Our former pastor’s wife had to evacuate,” Hamblen told BP. “She was having a hard time. Last night we sang all of her favorite and our favorite Southern Gospel songs around the piano. And it was great therapy for her.”
Regarding the evacuees’ daily routine, Hamblen said, “We sit around and we talk. We have prayer meetings.”
Jesus First Church’s story was featured by both FOX News and the Associated Press, the pastor said. He added that none of his church members’ houses had been burned, despite the fire threatening at least nine.
“The fire fighters and God saved them,” Hamblen said.
David Roach is a writer and pastor in Shelbyville, Ky.