BILOXI, Miss. (BP)–Southern Baptist volunteers gave away 17,000 Thanksgiving turkeys in a two-day event in Biloxi, Miss., that culminated with a worship service featuring Christian music artists Newsong and Clay Crosse and country music singer Mark Wills and a message by pastor Johnny Hunt Nov. 21-22.
“Our community lost more than 20,000 jobs after Hurricane Katrina, so I knew that there was a good possibility that 20,000 families would appreciate having a turkey for Thanksgiving,” Kevin Clifton, pastor of Bay Vista Baptist Church in Biloxi, told Baptist Press.
Over the course of a few months, the church was an operations center for the distribution of more than 4 million pounds of food to needy families, and as Thanksgiving approached, the members began to catch a vision for giving away free turkeys to those families, in a continued effort to show the love of Christ.
So Bay Vista spread the word, and in the end, about 200 Christian organizations had contributed money to the project. A man in Virginia gave the church a check for $75,000 to get them started, and the church gave another $25,000 from its disaster relief fund.
The next feat was accomplished when Bay Vista was granted permission to use the local Mississippi Coast Coliseum as a site for distributing the turkeys. The complex was heavily damaged by the hurricane, but in preparation for the handout, volunteers from several states brought in machinery and manpower to clear debris and ensure that the parking lot could handle the massive crowds that would come to pick up a free turkey.
Members of Bay Vista had developed a friendship with Jim Law, an associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., where Johnny Hunt is senior pastor. So when Bay Vista told them about the plans to give away a massive number of turkeys for Thanksgiving, Hunt was eager to travel down and be a part of the effort. Newsong, Crosse and Wills also got word and wanted to help, Clifton said.
From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 21, Bay Vista and other volunteers handed out about 9,000 turkeys. Traffic was snarled all around the coliseum and lines were long, but families with few possessions left with the main dish for a traditional Thanksgiving meal. In the first hour alone Monday morning, 600 turkeys were distributed, according to The Sun Herald in Biloxi.
The turkeys, weighing 12-15 pounds, were limited to one per car, and Gospel tracts accompanied them when they reached the hands of local residents. If the people needed prayer, volunteers took time to meet individually with them as well.
“It was amazing to hear their deep appreciation and their awe that churches would be that committed to them, not ever knowing them, not having met them,” Clifton said of the recipients. “They knew what kind of money had to be spent in order to pull that off. It’s been interesting to hear people who do not go to church say, ‘If it weren’t for the churches, we wouldn’t have made it.’”
In fact, Clifton said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who is a Presbyterian, has credited Baptists with getting the state back on its feet through their tireless efforts in feeding multitudes and giving their time and money to clean up entire communities.
“He said everywhere he went he saw Baptists out there on the hedges and highways, so we were thankful to be a part of it,” Clifton said.
The second day of the turkey giveaway ended with games and events for children in the coliseum parking lot from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., followed by a concert and then a message by Hunt. Clifton estimated about 2,500 people were in the crowd.
“He preached about the fact that Jesus is still in the life-changing business,” Clifton said of Hunt. “He talked about his testimony, how God had changed his life and how Jesus wanted to change their lives. Through his testimony, he was able to share Christ with them, and we had about 35 decisions made.”
But the highlight of the event for Clifton was the lesson God reminded him of through the setting. A short distance behind the stage where the musicians sang and Hunt preached was the President Casino Broadwater Resort sitting on top of a Holiday Inn building, carried there by the Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge.
“The backdrop for this whole event was the fact that Jesus said don’t build your house on sinking sand because when a storm comes it will wash it away,” he said. “Build it on the rock of Jesus.”
While community members were grateful to receive free turkeys and volunteers were glad to minister to them by meeting their physical needs, Clifton and other organizers hope people took away some portion of the idea that God is the only sure foundation on which to set their hope.
“We wanted to show them about how to build their lives,” Clifton said. “Most had been building them on the sand of casinos, and we want so desperately to show them that it’s the Lord Jesus Christ that can supply all of their needs according to His riches. That’s what we’re after. These casinos did not bring, to my knowledge, one truckload of food or one truckload of water to this community.”
And that’s where the body of Christ stands to make a difference.