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Baptists busy in Ike-ravaged Texas cities


HOUSTON (BP)–Houston. Baytown. Texas City. League City. Pasadena. Livingston. Port Arthur. Huntsville. Lufkin. Tyler. Since Tuesday, Sept. 16, Southern Baptist volunteers in these Texas cities have provided more than 321,000 hot meals for thousands of victims of Hurricane Ike. But they’ve only just begun.

In the largest SBC response to a natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina, Baptist disaster leaders foresee their feeding operations continuing at least two more weeks. Chainsaw and mud-out operations will go longer.

“This is Southern Baptists at our best when we’re cooperating with local churches and state conventions during times of disaster,” said Geoff Hammond, president of the North American Mission Board, during a tour of feeding operations in southeast Texas.

While speaking to disaster relief volunteers at Houston’s First Baptist Church, Hammond said, “Efforts like this would be impossible without great churches like this one.” The volunteers were invited to set up at the church by the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

Gregg Matte, the young pastor of First Baptist, said 100,000 cars go past the church each day via Interstate 10. “They all see these big tractor-trailers with the Southern Baptist Convention logo parked in our parking lot. That gives us tremendous exposure. We want to be salt and light in the City of Houston.”

To handle the feeding at the church, some 100 volunteers have driven 1,500 miles from points in California to lend a hand. They work various 12-hour shifts cooking, packaging, handling and distributing meals which the Red Cross and Salvation Army deliver to Houston’s hungry. At night, they’re sleeping on cots and air mattresses at First Baptist’s Christian Life Center.

“Stretch” Krege, the “blue cap,” or manager of the feeding unit, has been doing disaster relief ministry for 14 years, leaving his home in Bakersfield, Calif., to travel the country in search of stomachs to fill and souls to win.

Houston’s First Baptist is one of four “mega” feeding locations — along with ones in Baytown, League City and Texas City — that Southern Baptists have established to feed hungry Texans impacted by Ike. Each mega center is geared up to provide up to 80,000 meals a day.

In Baytown, 175 Southern Baptist disaster relief volunteers produced 50,000 meals on Wednesday alone from the parking lot of a former K-Mart store, prepared from three kitchen units deployed by North Carolina Baptist Men. The distribution included an on-site drive-through for victims to get their hot meals.

“The drive-through count was 14,000 on Tuesday and 17,000 on Wednesday,” said Lin Honeycutt of Raleigh, N.C., the “white cap” leader for the operation. “We’ve got the drive-through down to a science.”

The North Carolina units include 22 convection ovens, 15 tilt-skillets and four generators. In addition to the drive-through, the North Carolina units packed as many as 30 Red Cross ERV’s (emergency response vehicles) at a time. Each ERV holds 500 meals, which the Red Cross delivers deeper into the local affected area.

Honeycutt said his team was a little nervous about generating a potential 80,000 meals a day as a mega feeding center, simply because, “We’d never done that many before.”

The Alabama and Florida feeding units had been slated to go directly into Galveston, the area devastated by Ike. But because of the severe damage, those units were redeployed to Texas City, adjacent to the high school football stadium.

Florida Baptists’ disaster relief director Fritz Wilson said his Florida team had never joined with another state team before. The two teams meshed into a mega unit of 170 volunteers.

Alabama’s “white cap,” Mark Clayton of Birmingham, called it a “God thing” that the two groups — who didn’t know they would merge when they left home — gelled into a giant, efficient feeding operation.

“It’s stressful. It’s long hours … but things have gone great and we’re working well together,” Clayton said.

Of course, local victims didn’t care who provided the food and bottled water or where they came from. Most of the victims who came through the Alabama/Florida drive-through line had not had power or tap water in their homes for nearly a week.

When asked what she thought about the Southern Baptists’ operation as she drove through to pick up meals of beef stew over rice, Cheryl Kasper of Lamarque, Texas, said, “I think it’s the most wonderful thing anyone in the world could do for us.”

For another Lamarque resident, Gregory Garza, it was his fifth visit through the drive-through since Ike hit last Saturday, and he had five family members to feed at home. “We appreciate it very much. We need all the help we can get right now,” Garza said.

“People here are just fascinated with why Baptists are coming to their area to help,” Wilson said. “We had a truck driver who told us, ‘I’ve worked in a lot of hurricanes, and as I look at your guys, there’s something different about them. Everybody’s smiling.’

“A lot of times people look at what we do — the feeding, the mud-out work or the chainsaw work — and say, ‘Wow, that’s nice that you’re helping people, but what impact is it having on the Kingdom?’ I tell them that disaster relief allows us to plow the ground so seeds can be planted later by someone else. Sometimes we only sow or water. Sometimes we see the harvest or it comes later.” Wilson said.

One Baptist group who saw the harvest come quickly was a chainsaw team from the Baldwin Baptist Association in Alabama. The team, headed by “blue cap” Ken Gibson and chaplain Mack Duck, saw five people along the tree-lined Seventh Avenue area of Texas City accept Christ.

“That’s really why we’re here,” said Charles Thomaston, a member of First Baptist Church in Bay Minette, Ala. “Cutting trees and cleaning up just gives us a chance to witness.”

After one 21-year-old man was led to Christ by Duck, the entire 12-man crew turned off their chainsaws and laid down their pruning saws, gathered in a circle with him, thanking God for saving his soul and celebrating the decision. Then it was back to the giant water oaks and chinaberry trees of Seventh Avenue.

“It is dangerous work and we have to stay on our toes and remind each other not to take shortcuts but to be safe,” said Arthur (Bubba) Parker Jr., a plumber and member of First Baptist Church of Robertsdale, Ala. Parker has followed the legacy of his dad who for years was in Baptist disaster relief chainsaw work.

Don Reece, 77, was the oldest member of the Alabama team, but not too old to pull limbs and brush out of the way. Reece, of Boaz, Ala., was a 35-year missionary for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board in Nigeria before retiring 15 years ago. He continues to travel in the U.S. and foreign countries doing disaster relief work.

Away from the Texas Gulf Coast back up in Pasadena, Texas, due east of Houston, blue cap Jimmy Harris was leading a Georgia feeding unit near First Baptist Church. Harris led a group of 32 volunteers, four communications specialists and four chaplains.

Harris, a 14-year disaster relief veteran and owner of a trucking firm in Covington, Ga., said he hopes Southern Baptists and others would donate to disaster relief because of the growing expense, especially with $4-plus per gallon gasoline and diesel fuel costs.

“Our first gas stop cost $1,200. Another one cost $700. Just insurance on our trucks runs $7,500 a year. We’re happy to give our time to do this. But we need help,” Harris said.

As of Thursday, Southern Baptists have prepared more than 1.4 million hot meals, served nearly 12,000 volunteer days, provided 19,333 showers, made nearly 12,000 ministry contacts and seen 111 people come to Christ as a result of serving in the aftermath of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav.
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Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board. To donate to Southern Baptist disaster relief, access www.namb.net and click on the disaster relief logo or call toll-free 866-407-6262.

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  • Mickey Noah