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Baptists in western U.S. rally to aid flood victims

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (BP)–Some of the worst flooding in
decades in the western United States washed away part of the
foundation of home missionary Bruce Pearson’s modular home in southern Oregon, but he hasn’t had time to deal with it.

Like about 500 other Southern Baptists in Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Washington, Oregon and California, Pearson has been
involved in immediate-response disaster relief efforts for the more than 150,000 people affected by a mix of heavy rain and unexpected snowmelt.

In disaster relief parlance, immediate response is providing hot meals and loving concern for those who otherwise would not have them. Mucking out flood-ravaged homes will come next, followed by repairs and renovations.

Don Hargis of California knows the drill. This is his 18th West Coast disaster in the last five years by Southern Baptists.

So does Larry Horine. It’s his third disaster in Oregon in 11 months.

Disaster relief in the western United States has become an established method of expressing Southern Baptists’ evangelistic heart and social concern.

“Part of the dilemma for us in the Northwest is we are just now building the relationships so they know they can call on us,” said Gary Floyd, who wears the disaster relief director’s hat along with many others as the Northwest Baptist Convention’s missions ministry strategist.

“If they’ve been in disaster relief, they may know from
their publications about Southern Baptists but don’t know
Southern Baptists are in the Northwest,” Floyd continued. “When they hear we’ve been here 50 years they’re surprised.

“Disaster relief gives us an avenue into the community that we have not historically had,” Floyd said. “It is a very overt display of unconditional love. We intentionally network with local churches so, when the unit leaves, the community knows someone still knows about them.”

Southern Baptist disaster relief efforts began in Texas in 1969 and spread to other states including, five years ago, to California, said Mickey Caison, the Brotherhood Commission’s national disaster relief director.

Caison left a meeting in Washington to assist in the
California effort, which saw as many as 125,000 people evacuated from their homes in the wake of 40 inches of rain that fell New Year’s week. The rain was followed by unseasonably warm temperatures that brought acres of Sierra Nevada snowmelt sliding down the state’s backbone mountain range to mix with churning rainwater.

This resulted in raging rivers, swollen streams and creeks overflowing their banks to join with others and become waves of desolation that swept across agricultural lands, through towns and into homes and city fresh water supplies.

California is hit with a natural disaster as often as any state in the union, Caison said — floods, fires, mudslides, earthquakes and riots, among others.

“California has become very active in disaster relief
efforts,” Caison said in a mobile telephone interview. “In Nevada and other western states, Southern Baptist disaster relief is very young.”

Despite its recent entry into disaster relief, Nevada had people from 13 churches helping in Carson City and in the Reno area, where as much as four feet of water rolled down city streets. Reno is on the lee side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

In the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention, two trained volunteers from Utah and 10 from Idaho assisted in initial disaster relief efforts in the Boise area, where heavy flooding resulted in mudslides that shut down roads to two 400-resident communities. An additional two dozen Southern Baptists are receiving on-the-disaster training and many others are helping, said the two-state convention’s disaster relief director, Roger Cheramie.

It doesn’t take long to gain experience, said “blue cap” (unit leader) Larry Horine of Oregon’s Juniper Baptist
Association. Last February he was helping in the wake of flooding in Tillamook, Ore. In July he was there as firefighters battled the Skeleton fire at the outskirts of Bend.

The key is to let first-time volunteers see the devastation, Horine said. Once volunteers see what other people are going through, they say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

“Sometimes we’ve got to stand around and wait for something to do,” Horine said in a telephone interview during a lull between meals at Juniper association’s mobile kitchen at the National Guard Armory in Medford, Ore. “But when things start hopping, the work they do is really important. When they go out there and see how messed up it is, they know why they’re here and they hop five times as fast.”

California, the nation’s most-populated state, received the most media attention in the wake of the flooding. Preliminary damage estimates approached $2 billion.

“This was a ‘level five,'” California Southern Baptist
Convention disaster relief director Don Hargis said in a mobile telephone interview. He was fighting a recurring attack of vertigo while coordinating the relief efforts. “When you have thousands of homes affected by a flood, you’re at a level five. The strenuous part is mucking out. The hard part is finding people to be fed, those people who’ve not had a hot meal in days.”

Disaster relief volunteers, such as one-year veteran Darin Holden, are trained to share their faith when not dishing up food. Holden is a member at Panama Baptist Church, Bakersfield, Calif. An oil field worker, his boss gave him a week off without pay to help with the relief effort.

“You work long hours, little sleep, very big rewards,”
Holden said. “Seeing the people’s faces, their attitude towards us for helping them, is what makes it worth it. It makes you very thankful. You realize it could happen in your backyard.”

Utah/Idaho’s Cheramie could have been speaking in any
western state: “This flooding is like a bad cold. It just hangs around. We’ve got people we can’t get to, and as soon as we do, we hear of others who haven’t had a hot meal in several days. The water goes down in one area — and the river keeps rising in another. Several city sewer systems have been contaminated.”

Rookie volunteer Sherri Fleetwood is a member of Evergreen Baptist Church, Vancouver, Wash. Her church is a member of the metropolitan Interstate Baptist Association, which is developing the Northwest Baptist Convention’s second disaster relief unit.

Sleeping on a cot in the Medford National Guard Armory
wasn’t so bad, she said. Viewing the desolation was harder.

“I was on an ERV (emergency vehicle) to Ashland,” 10 miles south of Medford, she recounted, continuing, “They had a couple of creeks that look like rivers now. Several trailer parks were flooded out and a part of downtown Ashland. You could tell where the mud and water had been all through them.

“We know that we are doing good, getting people fed who
wouldn’t have food otherwise,” Fleetwood said. “It’s been a good experience. My husband and I like to get out and be doing something and be active in helping people for the Lord. We have a lot of fun doing this and it feels good to know you’ve done something worthwhile.”

About a thousand trained disaster relief volunteers in
California would say the same thing, Hargis said. Floyd said he hopes the Northwest Baptist Convention will have 1,000 trained volunteers and 10 units by the year 2000. And Utah/Idaho’s Cheramie is putting together a plan for church members to adopt flood victims, not for financial but emotional support.