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As evacuees headed north, Ga. Baptists gave shelter

MACON, Ga. (BP) — As Hurricane Irma evacuees streamed north, Baptists in Georgia welcomed Floridians fleeing the storm’s looming wrath.

One church even turned some of its 16 acres into a makeshift RV campground.

At Lighthouse Baptist, just off Interstate 75 in Macon, Ga., pastor Tim Sizemore and church leaders decided they could offer evacuees more than their small sanctuary.

They ran electricity and limited water and septic to the site of Lighthouse’s future growth and converted it into a temporary campground.

When word got out, families with RVs, campers and just cars began pulling into the pastoral setting for rest.

News of the unique venue spread through word of mouth and Facebook, which Sizemore said registered 650 shares, and through the websites of Rehoboth Baptist Association and nearby Robbins Air Force Base. He also occasionally trekked over to the Love’s Truck Stop to invite strangers who looked tired and in need of a place to spend the night.

Lighthouse members provided dinners to the evacuees, “just a traditional Southern Baptist covered dish meal, whatever they have at home or in their freezers … everything from barbecue to cubed venison,” Sizemore said.

The church coffee shop became a meet-and-greet place for evacuees, with a flat-screen television streaming live coverage of Hurricane Irma’s onslaught on their home state.

One Lighthouse member who operates a bakery provided various food items to the guests while a friend of the church who operates a roastery provided coffee.

Evacuees’ influx into Georgia

Many of the shelters operated by the Red Cross and by churches were opened along the Interstate 75 corridor which runs up the spine of Georgia from Valdosta to Atlanta; other sites were along the Interstate 16 corridor from Savannah to Macon.

Shelters in Georgia were in high demand due to congested northbound interstate traffic as many weary evacuees were unable to travel as far as they expected. Traffic also forced evacuees to stop for fuel more often than they had planned.

An additional factor: hotels as far north as Atlanta had been sold out for days, so a free cot in a church or school gym seemed like a good deal. Some evacuees were content to stay in a shelter until the storm passed but many wanted to leave the next morning to reach relatives or friends as far north as possible.

CrossPointe Church in Valdosta, one of the first options for evacuees entering Georgia, hosted a Red Cross shelter with full service from the health department, an onsite nurse and 24/7 clinic, security from the sheriff’s office and representatives from the Division of Family and Children Services (DFACS).

“We were unable to have our regular services this morning [Sept. 10] because of all the activity,” pastor David Rogers said, “but what is interesting is last week I began a series on being salt and light in the world. I never expected that we would be called on the very next week to live that out in such a powerful way.

“There has been a lot of Gospel sharing going on through a one-to-one basis, even with some of the local Red Cross workers,” Rogers reported.

CrossPointe housed several hundred evacuees in its new building which was dedicated on Easter Sunday. It has a sleeping capacity of 750 through use of its 1,400-seat sanctuary with moveable chairs along with its youth center and other rooms.

Brewton-Parker College located south of I-16 in Mount Vernon, Ga., was an early option for evacuees from coastal Georgia. Within four hours of its noon opening on Sunday, 45 of its 100 beds in Gill Gymnasium were already filled.

The college, which is affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention, welcomed both Florida evacuees and a number of individuals from the local community, since law enforcement agencies in Georgia were encouraging residents in less sturdy dwellings such as manufactured housing to seek better protection from the strong winds and heavy rain.

A long trek

At Iglesia Bautista Hispanoamericana in the Atlanta-area community of Lilburn, more than 100 members of a Savannah congregation under mandatory evacuation orders began arriving in the middle of the night on Thursday. Samuel Rodriguez, pastor of the Savannah congregation — Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana — then received a call in Lilburn about a Florida church with 50 members who were seeking shelter.

The church caravan had fled St. Petersburg and driven to North Carolina seeking shelter but when nothing was found, they drove back down the coast to Savannah. That’s when they searched online for local Hispanic churches and found contact information for the Hispanic church there.

Rolando Ruiz, pastor of the Lilburn congregation, extended a welcome to the group, who then drove another six hours to the church. By the time the caravan arrived, they had been on the road for 24 hours.

The Savannah church had been hosted in Lilburn last October when Hurricane Matthew struck coastal Georgia, with the two pastors, Rodriguez and Ruiz, having a longtime ministry relationship.

Further up the state, Beech Haven Baptist Church in Athens opened the doors of its family life center to 73 evacuees. Pastor David Mills said “about 29 are from Primeria Inglesia Bautista Hispano de Indiantown, Fla., a church we visited this summer for a mission trip.”

“An additional 44 are from Inglesia Baustista Latinoamericano from Savannah,” Mills said. “We have the pastor’s son as an intern. This church helped in 2015 with a sports camp here in Athens.”

Near Americus, evacuees found a safe haven at Friendship Camp, a ministry of Friendship Baptist Association, with 125 volunteers and donors providing their time or supplies to keep the camp running.

Camp director Lance Fendley and Friendship director of missions Charles Stoop thanked the association’s churches for preparing and serving meals and for their outpouring of diapers and other resources. Thanks to word of mouth through emergency services and local media, evacuees found their way the 47 miles off I-75 to the camp, which was sheltering 80 evacuees Sunday afternoon, with more arrivals expected.

Evacuees also made their way to First Baptist Church in Cuthbert and its Red Cross shelter at the crossroads of Highway 82, a main evacuation route from the Florida Panhandle, and Highway 27 which runs nearly all the way to Miami.

Evacuees were being housed in the church’s family life center with its 50-cot capacity and two sets of showers. In addition to preparing meals at the church, First Baptist volunteers sent 42 bagged lunches over to the Methodist church which had been called into service to shelter clients moved from a nearby drug rehabilitation center.

Churches in the Laurens Baptist Association, meanwhile, were working with health agencies to support Red Cross shelters for 1,000-plus evacuees at four local schools near the I-16 corridor in Dublin, with the association’s office serving as the collection point for the variety of items needed by evacuees who fled their Florida homes with limited time to pack.

“If the evacuees need it — toothbrush or toothpaste, food, water, pillows or blankets — we sent runners to the location where it is needed,” director of missions Bobby Jones said. The churches and community have been extremely helpful in donating the needed items, he added.

At Arabi Baptist Church, just west of I-75 between Valdosta and Tifton, pastor Johnny Evans said 20 evacuees had been directed to the church for shelter by the Crisp County sheriff’s department and other local law enforcement as they encountered families and individuals needing help.

What is interesting, Evans said, is that last year the church provided solace to a woman fleeing Hurricane Matthew’s storm surge in Savannah. And this year when the warning went out, the first place she thought of was Arabi Baptist Church.

“We’ve adopted her,” Evans said with a smile.