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Baptist volunteers in action after killer tornadoes in Fla.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (BP)–A torn, tattered and water-soaked Bible will forever serve as a reminder to Joan Hoschar how she miraculously survived the deadliest swarm of tornadoes ever to hit Florida.
By a weather report telling of the string of twisters touching down in central Florida, J.R. Hoschar awakened Joan, his wife, early Monday morning Feb. 22. Together they fled their mobile home, jumped in their car and headed for the clubhouse at the Ponderosa Park Campground in Kissimmee. Finding it locked, the Baptist couple drove to a cement block bathhouse and crouched in a shower stall with another couple while the storm raged. When the winds subsided, an estimated 90 seconds after hearing the tornado’s tell-tale sound of a train, they found their winter home for more than 20 years had disintegrated.
“We were blessed,” said Joan Hoschar. A next-door neighbor and a close friend were among at least 10 people claimed
By the killer twisters that night in the Ponderosa Park, when the tornadoes lifted bodies and trailers out of the park and dumped them on the adjacent turnpike.
The Hoschars lost everything they had that night, except for their car, the clothes on their backs and Joan’s Bible, which was later found among the rubble and taken to the Osceola County sheriff’s office where she claimed it.
“God works in mysterious ways,” said Joan, a member of North Parkersburg Baptist Church in Parkersburg, W.Va. “My favorite Bible verse says, ‘All things work for good for those that love the Lord.’ That is such a wonderful comfort. Jesus is our friend and Savior. Aren’t we blessed to have him?”
The week after the El Nino-driven twisters, packing 260 mph winds left 41 dead, 265 injured and an estimated $67.5 million in damage to central Florida homes and businesses, Southern Baptist volunteers helped local churches reach out in ministry to their communities.
A group of Florida Baptist volunteers stationed at First Baptist Church, Kissimmee, ministered to the disaster victims at the Ponderosa Park, helping them sift through the rubble for their personal belongings, resourcing specific needs, placing tarp on broken roofs and offering counsel. All around them laid the carnage of twisted steel, shattered glass and splintered lumber.
The tragedy enabled the survivors to “get their attention off the world to discover that life is very precious,” said Ken Woolridge, a Baptist volunteer from West Palm Beach who spent four days in the campground helping the victims. He befriended a Christian woman who for years prayed for the conversion of her husband, a self-proclaimed atheist.
In the hours after the storm, Woolridge led the man to Christ. “He had let the barrier down,” he said.
Four days after the storm, in a location miles from the trailer park but within the same swath of destruction, Baptist disaster relief volunteers arrived in the Morningside area, only to be told to leave while authorities were still looking for bodies. An ambulance’s shrill siren and flashing lights passed the departing volunteers headed to the affected area signaling that the search was not in vain.
Nancy Wilder had been helping a friend in that area and noticed a man sitting alone on the steps of what once was a home. Bruised and injured, the man shared his experiences and said that his wife was still hospitalized.
As the two talked, she found the couple had been visiting First Baptist Church of Kissimmee where Wilder’s husband is pastor. Pastor Tim Wilder was soon at the woman’s bedside. “It’s a tragedy, but a golden opportunity for us to minister,” he said.
The Kissimmee congregation experienced no fatalities as a result of the disaster, but the homes of five church members were completely destroyed, including the residence of the minister of music, Mark Epperson. Another 20 church members’ homes were severely damaged.
After sending out cleanup crews throughout most of the week following the storm, the church will offer victims’ support groups. Church members also will be trained in grief counseling.
As his church members rallied around the community to help the tornado victims, Wilder said he once again understood “the importance of church family in times of crisis, as well as the importance of relationship and the unimportance of material things.”
Working among twisted steel lodged in trees, smashed cars, crumpled homes and scattered belongings, residents of Winter Garden, a community with a small town feeling on the outskirts of Orlando, sought to piece together their lives after the killer tornadoes. The congregation of First Baptist Church of Winter Garden reported two tornado-related deaths: an 80-year-old longtime church member, Gordon Chandler, and Allie Fulk, who regularly attended church activities.
Within hours after the early morning tornadoes struck, First Baptist members began responding to the storm victims. A relief center was set up in the church’s Spanish mission, Iglesia Bautista de Park Avenue, located adjacent to the affected areas. From that point, church members led other Florida Baptist volunteers to knock on homes in the area, assessing damage and needs. Volunteers grilled food, made sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies and delivered them to residents who were without electricity or who were afraid to leave their home vulnerable to possible looters.
Other Baptist volunteers helped residents trim trees, clear debris, cover damaged roofs and sort through the rubble for salvageable belongings. When residents of one large apartment were given only 45 minutes to remove any personal belongings, Baptist volunteers responded with helping hands and transport vehicles.
“They have lost everything,” said volunteer Janet Massey. The Spanish mission became a community relief flagship and distribution center for food, canned goods, diapers and clothing donated
By local merchants and other concerned persons. “Our community has become unselfish,” said Johnnie Neal, recreation minister at First Baptist Church who coordinated the relief effort. “God supplies, we deliver.”
“God’s sovereignty is seeing it’s all a part of a plan, although we can’t see around the corner, we know who is there,” Neal said.
Hispanic pastor Jose Rivera acknowledged the church members’ response will provide opportunities for the fledgling mission. “This will open doors to the community. We have already had many opportunities to present the gospel.”
Similar relief operations were established at Westview Baptist Church in Sanford.
A Florida Baptist Convention staff member trained in disaster response was dispatched to each location to provide resources and expertise to the local churches. Jim Brown, director of the state convention’s Florida Baptist men’s department, said this disaster, unlike Hurricane Andrew, left operational the overall infrastructure in the Orlando area.
Victims’ needs were met
By churches, agencies and city departments. “We supplied volunteers and a staff person to walk alongside the churches responding to the needs in their areas. The churches will be there to minister long after the disaster is over and the volunteers have left. For their efforts, these churches will be beacons in their communities.”
Florida Baptist church members will continue to help disaster victims rebound and rebuild. Contributions, which will be forwarded to churches for distribution, can be sent to the Disaster Relief , Central Florida Tornadoes, Florida Baptist Convention, 1230 Hendricks Ave., Jacksonville, FL 32207.

    About the Author

  • Barbara Denman
    Barbara Denman is communications editor for the Florida Baptist Convention. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.Read All by Barbara Denman ›