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‘Chainsaw Pastor’ finds open doors through Florida Keys relief ministry

KEY WEST, Fla. (BP)–For the past five weeks, Bob Hetherington has carried a chainsaw to work.
“We’ve been calling him ‘Chainsaw Pastor,’ said wife Judy Hetherington. “But he says it’s been absolutely the greatest visitation program we have ever had.”
Since Hurricane Georges struck the middle and southern Florida Keys Sept. 25, Hetherington, pastor of the Fifth Street Baptist Church, has ministered to folks in his community by willingly cutting trees and branches off of hurricane-damaged homes, apartment buildings and trailers. His servant spirit, coupled with 21 years of ministering in the Keys, has earned him recognition and respect.
“Before, when he used to go visiting in the community, few people would invite him inside to talk,” said Judy Hetherington, who serves as minister of education at the Key West church. “But after he has spent a few hours cutting trees on their property, they say, ‘Come in and talk.’ The doors are wide open.”
The Hetheringtons have found many doors open in the aftermath of the hurricane since the church and Florida Baptists launched an all-out effort to feed those without food and help with the area’s immediate recovery, Judy Hetherington said.
“Everywhere we go, like just yesterday, the bank teller told me, ‘You have no idea how the town appreciates what you and Florida Baptists have done for us,'” she recalled. Others have told her, “You guys were the first ones to help.”
And when Hurricane Mitch was bearing down in the Caribbean in late October, several people asked Hetherington if Florida Baptists would return to the Keys should the area be hit again. “I guaranteed them that the truck would be waiting in Florida City, just like before.”
The Key West City Commission passed a resolution thanking all of the local churches for their assistance during the disaster, but expressed appreciation “first and foremost” to Fifth Street Baptist Church.
Immediately after the storm, the Florida Baptist Convention disaster relief van and mobile feeding kitchen was mobilized to Key West and parked at Fifth Street Baptist’s front door for 17 days.
Two mobile kitchens from South Carolina and Georgia Baptists were stationed for eight days at First Baptist, Big Pine Key and Sugarloaf Baptist churches on Summerland Key. During the recovery effort 112,000 hot meals were served to the community.
Command centers were established to coordinate the work of volunteers, including 28 staff members from the Florida Baptist Convention and 98 volunteers from Florida Baptist churches. The volunteers assisted 151 families by cutting and removing trees from homes, cleaning out mud and performing other necessary tasks. Another 1,000 families were visited by trained counselors and, in some cases, received emergency financial assistance.
In the relief effort, the convention spent $102,780 for: assistance to churches, $65,200; ministerial salary supplements, $9,843; emergency family assistant, $16,000; and equipment replacement, $11,737.
Charles Sexton, pastor of Big Pine Key Baptist Church, reported most people are back in their homes and the church building is being repaired. Many of the residents have turned their attention to the ‘Fantasy Fest’ gay weekend,” he added. “So, unfortunately, some things have returned to normal.”
During the next few months, Sexton said, many more homeless people will make their way to the Keys to spend the winter and will be added to the 1,000 homeless families who lost everything during the hurricane. The church is known in the community for its work with the homeless, providing needs for the indigent, showers and sometimes providing a place to stay.
“The Keys is a unique place to minister, unlike central Florida where I grew up or the Panhandle where I served as pastor,” Sexton said.
Brenda Forlines, director of the convention’s church and community ministries department, and Sharon Thompson, associate in the women’s mission and ministries department, discovered a sense of hopelessness as the two visited homes and counseled residents in the aftermath of the storm.
More so than any hurricane since Hurricane Andrew struck Miami in 1992, “these images have haunted me,” Forlines said. One widow and her dog stayed in a closet in her tiny trailer for 24 hours while the storm raged around her. Days later, the woman’s entire body was still trembling, Forlines said.
A woman living in a small trailer “the size of my office” talked incessantly, Forlines recounted. “I kept thinking, she’s talking because all day long she lives in this box and has no one else to talk to. I can’t get that image of her in that little box out of my mind.”
A man, surly at first and his body covered in sores, showed the two women the pills he takes to fight his bone cancer. He was so taken aback when the women offered him financial assistance, he let down his guard and told of horrific Vietnam experiences as a Baptist chaplain.
“They seemed bummed out, hiding from mistakes in their past or a less than tolerant society,” said Thompson, a trained psychologist. “I saw more risk-taking behavior, extreme alcoholism, self-destructive addiction and experimentation with drugs. Many of them have come to the Keys to escape from life.”
As a result of their work, Thompson said she “hoped we were there painting a picture of Baptists that we were more than a people of words, we are a people of action. I hope that through our efforts we undergirded the credibility that Hetheringtons have already earned in this community.”

    About the Author

  • Barbara Denman

    Barbara Denman is communications editor for the Florida Baptist Convention. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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