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Bob Dixon: Disaster relief pioneer was rooted in faith

DALLAS (BP) — Robert E. “Bob” Dixon, who pioneered Southern Baptist disaster relief ministry more than 50 years ago — seeing DR deployments as “invitations from the Father” — died May 10 at age 90.

Dixon fashioned homemade “buddy burners” from gallon-sized coffee cans when, in the wake of Hurricane Beulah in 1967, he was dispatched to the Rio Grande Valley from a Royal Ambassadors boys camp.

His task: to do what he could to coordinate volunteers who would use the one-pot buddy burners to prepare breakfast for truck drivers delivering food and clothing to storm survivors.

“At the time, nobody knew I had received disaster relief training by the U.S. Bureau of Mines when I was with the Tennessee Valley Authority,” Dixon recalled in a Baptist Press story prior to his retirement in 1998.

Within three years, Dixon had become executive director of Texas Baptist Men, which created Southern Baptists’ first tractor-trailer disaster relief unit equipped with a field kitchen, ham radio, bunks for a volunteer crew and a generator for emergency power.

Dixon’s initiative sparked Southern Baptists’ national disaster relief ministry, with DR volunteers and equipment in all 50 states who deploy for hurricanes and other natural disasters both in the U.S. and internationally.

Southern Baptist Disaster Relief now encompasses 70,000 trained volunteers — including chaplains — and 1,550 mobile units for feeding, chainsaw, mud-out, child care, shower, laundry, water purification, communication and power generation. SBDR is one of the three largest mobilizers of trained disaster relief volunteers in the U.S., along with the American Red Cross and The Salvation Army.

At his memorial service, slated for 2 p.m. Saturday, May 19, at TBM’s Robert E. Dixon Missions Equipping Center in Dallas, Dixon had requested that disaster relief volunteers wear their yellow DR shirts — the familiar color for their shirts and hats in deploying to innumerable natural disasters.

“The work and ministry Bob Dixon started at Texas Baptist Men has literally changed the world,” said David Hardage, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. “He will be long remembered and the work he began will continue for years to come.”

David Melber, president of the Send Relief arm of the SBC’s North American Mission Board, said Southern Baptists have served millions of people through DR since Dixon’s venture after Hurricane Beulah.

“We certainly stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us and Bob set the foundation,” Melber said. “This ministry can be traced back to Bob’s desire to simply recruit, engage and mobilize volunteers for the sake of serving those in great need.”

NAMB annually presents the Robert E. Dixon Disaster Relief Award to an outstanding DR leader; Dixon, who led Texas Baptist Men for 29 years, also was among the early recipients of the BGCT’s Texas Baptist Legacy Award in 2014.

“You’ll be amazed at what God can do with one small bit of obedience,” Dixon said upon receiving the BGCT award.

“I’m grateful the Father taught me early on that it’s His work and His Kingdom,” he often said, as recounted by the BGCT newsjournal Baptist Standard in a May 10 obituary. “I’m just a recruiting director.”

For Dixon, disaster relief always had a spiritual dimension.

Perhaps the greatest influence on his life and the fiber of Texas Baptist Men began with prayer seminars that the late Don Miller began leading in the mid-1970s.

“I had never known much about the Holy Spirit before,” Dixon said. But through the teachings of Miller and others like Henry Blackaby, T.W. Hunt and Avery Willis, he became convicted that God calls His followers to be “a praying people.” Blackaby’s “Experiencing God” teachings on the “Seven Realities” of God’s work among His people particularly made an impact.

“I came to understand that God is always at work around us, and He pursues a continuing love relationship with us,” Dixon said in the 1998 BP article. “It’s when we are in that relationship that He invites us to join Him in His activity.”

Dixon “would be the last person to tell you how much he shaped and influenced” Texas Baptist Men, Mickey Lenamon, current TBM executive director, said in the Baptist Standard obituary.

“He was a spiritual giant and has literally touched millions of lives through TBM,” said Lenamon, who counted Dixon as his spiritual mentor since the mid-1970s when they traveled together to St. Cloud, Minn., to help start a church.

“Bob taught me to read the Book and talk with the Father on a daily basis,” Lenamon said. “Other than my parents, Bob Dixon has had the most influence on my life.”

Lenamon credits Dixon with teaching him an important leadership principle — to ask, “Who can do the job better than me?”

“He taught me to look for others’ spiritual gifts and empower them to serve,” Lenamon said.

A native of Chattanooga, Tenn., Dixon was baptized in 1938 at age 10 at Avondale Baptist Church there, where he was ordained to the ministry in 1959.

His first sense of a call to ministry came during World War II when he was a mobilization officer for the former Sixth Naval District and playing on a Navy baseball team in Hawaii. He injured his right leg sliding into base and — in a Navy hospital between wondering if he would lose his leg to infection and receiving 98 shots of a new wonder drug called “penicillin” — he sensed a stirring to vocational Christian service.

“When I went back to the little church where I grew up on [Chattanooga’s] Missionary Ridge and told them I had been called, they asked me, ‘Preacher or missionary?'” Dixon said in the 1998 BP story. “Neither one. If that’s all He’s got, I must have missed the calling.”

Dixon spent two years as a catcher in the Washington Senators AA farm system, graduated from the former Edmondson Business College in Chattanooga and began working for the Tennessee Valley Authority.

As a layman, Dixon worked with youth while still sensing a call to the ministry. In 1957, he moved to Fort Worth, Texas, with his wife Jean and their two daughters to attend Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and was hired at College Avenue Baptist Church as youth director.

Dixon went on to serve in church recreation and youth ministry at Calvary Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., First Baptist Church in Nashville and First Baptist in Memphis before he was invited in 1966 to become the BGCT’s director for the Royal Ambassadors missions program for boys. Three years later, he became TBM executive director.

Mickey Caison, who led Southern Baptist Disaster Relief for 23 years until his retirement last year, recounted, “From my first encounter with Bob Dixon I realized he was a man who was very passionate for involving men and boys in a personal relationship with God. He sought to teach them about God and involve them in God’s service. That was his purpose for his life and TBM.

“I could see his willingness to use so many other means to provide mission education and mission involvement for men and boys. The many different ministries of TBM was evidence of this process,” Caison added. “He demonstrated that the more opportunities you give volunteers the more volunteers will respond. He tapped into their skills and abilities and provided opportunity for men and boys to be used of God to touch their world.”

In addition to his wife and daughters Kathy and Becky, Dixon is survived by three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, the family requested memorial gifts to Texas Baptist Men.