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Baptists offer food, comfort to upper-Midwest flood victims

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (BP)–Michael Waters traded one Red River Valley pastorate for another in March, moving from north Texas to North Dakota. He never expected to be greeted by blizzard, fire and the kind of flood that hits the Great Plains of the upper Midwest once every 500 years.

For the 28-year-old former pastor of Corinth Baptist Church in Bonham, Texas, it was a once-in-many-lifetimes ministry opportunity involving fellow Baptists from as far away as Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio.

Members of his church, Calvary Baptist, Emerado, N.D., worked alongside Texas Baptist Men, cooking food from the field kitchen of the Texas Baptist disaster relief mobile unit. Volunteers parked the specially equipped 18-wheel tractor-trailer rig inside a hangar at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, 15 miles west of downtown Grand Forks, N.D.

Local officials ordered a mandatory evacuation of more than 42,000 people in Grand Forks — about 85 percent of the city’s population — and nearly all of the 9,000 residents of neighboring East Grand Forks, Minn., after a dike collapsed April 18. As snow continued to melt, the Red River of the North crested at 54.11 feet, 26 feet above flood stage.

In the first three days of the Texas Baptist relief ministry, volunteers prepared more than 20,000 meals for flood victims and emergency personnel who rallied to their aid. Baptist volunteers cooked meals delivered by American Red Cross workers to evacuees housed in a three-bay hangar at the base and at other shelters throughout the area.

Several members of Calvary Baptist Church, which is about 90 percent military personnel, were assigned by their commanding officers to aid the Texas Baptist Men. Many came in their off-duty hours to continue helping.

Texas Baptist volunteers bunked in Sunday school rooms at the church’s building across the road from the air base. Members volunteered to wash aprons and clothes for the Texans, once local officials eased water conservation restrictions. Though the swollen Red River stretched across 40 miles of flat farmland at some points, raw sewage polluted water supplies, creating a shortage of potable water.

President Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist, visited the air base April 22 to meet with about 3,000 displaced local residents and view damage. Mel Goodwin of Kilgore, Texas, on-site coordinator for the Texas Baptist mobile unit, noted that the base general received a call from the White House asking what the Baptist volunteers were serving that day.

Volunteers moved the mobile unit to North Dakota from a missions conference in San Antonio where they were demonstrating its capabilities to Baptists from around the state.

The Texans were joined for a time by David Burton, personal evangelism director for the Florida Baptist Convention, who was in the region attending a youth evangelism conference when the flood started. He worked with Ed Pope, Brotherhood director for the Dakota Southern Baptist Fellowship, Bismarck, N.D., and Carl Roach, director of missions for the Siouxland Association of Southern Baptists, Sioux Falls, S.D.

Oklahoma Baptist disaster relief workers prepared more than 900 meals in their first two days across the river in Red Lake Falls, Minn. Ohio Baptists set up emergency food service at Temple Baptist Church, Fargo, N.D.

Jerry Bob Taylor of Brownwood, Texas, served as on-site coordinator for Baptist relief efforts, working from the American Red Cross mass care temporary office at an abandoned Kmart near the airport in Fargo, N.D.

Taylor noted many evacuees were staying with relatives outside the flood area or with families in the region who opened their homes to complete strangers. When the flood victims return to find their homes uninhabitable, shelters are likely to be filled, he predicted.

“When the water goes down and the roads open back up, people will try to get back into their homes and start cleaning up. That will take weeks and weeks, and for awhile they’re going to find polluted water, no sewer and no electricity,” Taylor said. “That’s when these red and white ERVs (American Red Cross emergency response vehicles) will really be running their wheels off.”

In the meantime, Baptists try to provide comfort to those whom they can locate in shelters and private homes.

“Just about every other family in our church has taken someone into their home,” said Waters of Calvary Baptist, a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas. “I don’t know of any who haven’t helped one way or another.”

When flood waters forced Ken and Carolyn Switzer from their home in southern Grand Forks, they moved to nearby Larimore, N.D., to stay with Mike and Alice Harris, fellow members of Calvary Baptist Church.

Ken Switzer sings in the praise ensemble and his wife plays piano and electronic keyboards at Calvary Baptist. They expect to find their music library ruined, along with their washer, dryer, tools, Christmas decorations and other items all stored in their basement.

“We’re ready to go south for a while. My parents said to come on down to Mississippi, and we’re getting ready to go,” Switzer said. “We’re getting in a vacation that we hadn’t planned. It’s not the way we would have wanted it, but we’ll take whatever the Lord provides.”

On April 20, Waters and a praise team from Calvary Baptist led Protestant chapel services in the shelter at the air base.

“It was really about an hour and a half concert with a 10-minute devotional from the 23rd Psalm,” he said. “We tried to offer encouragement and comfort. I told them that when God is our Shepherd and we know him personally, we don’t have to be afraid.”

Penny Douglas understands the fear that can overwhelm the dispossessed and the peace that God offers. Floods forced her family of six from their home in the Griggs Park area of East Grand Forks.

They initially moved across the river into their church building, Faith Community Fellowship, a Southern Baptist congregation in Grand Forks where husband Kirk has served as an associate pastor.

As the floodwater continued to rise, the Douglas family had to move again. Penny, Kirk and their three children, ages 3, 6 and 8, relocated to the shelter at the air base. The family may relocate temporarily to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, but they hope to return to East Grand Forks soon.

Although living conditions are rugged at the shelter, Penny said it will be hard to leave the friends she and her family have made there.

“There’s a family of Bosnian refugees right next to us. They had just been here a week when the floods came. Now they’re refugees again,” she said.

Penny Douglas said she and her husband tried to be sensitive to the needs of others at the shelter and to minister to them.

“The people here who are without the Lord are so bound up with fear. I just try to pray with them and comfort them,” she said. “There’s one lady who I would see noticeably shaking. She is living in fear that someone will take her children away.

“Our foundation is not on that kind of sinking sand. We’re grounded in the Lord. We have so much to be thankful for.”

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  • Ken Camp