PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (BP)–Jim Schaaf looked forward to celebrating his baptism Aug. 15 — publicly displaying his identification with his Lord, Jesus Christ. Instead, he and his wife, Joan, spent his birthday and what was to be his baptism day roaming through the deserted and disheveled property of First Baptist Church in Punta Gorda, Fla.
The Florida Baptist Witness visited the church property Sunday morning, Aug. 15, and found the Schaafs inspecting the damage in what they called “a daze” — like most of the residents of the city which bore the worst devastation from Hurricane Charley two days before.
Although the main building suffered what appeared to be superficial damage — with the steeple snapped off its base and laying on the roof, the church parsonage seemed to have significant damage, including the loss of a large portion of its second story.
The church music and youth ministers, Joe and Brian Odom, and their families, lived in the house. Joe is Brian’s father, according to the Schaafs. The staff ministers and the church pastor, Paul Russell, and his family, had left town to stay with relatives in a safer area.
The Schaafs evacuated their home as the predictions for the hurricane worsened.
“When we saw what was coming in, we just prayed,” Joan said, adding that if the storm surge had been as bad as predicted, there would have been many more deaths.
A two-year resident of Punta Gorda, Joan, who joined the church last winter, said the conditions in the area are treacherous.
“It’s really dangerous to be out on the roads,” she said. “We could barely get out of our little cul-de-sac because there are wires hanging so low we weren’t sure we could clear it,” she said.
“There are old people on our street, and they don’t have any way to cook. We have a barbecue (grill) and we told them we would bring them food. There’s so many people who don’t have …” — she stopped speaking, her voice choked with emotion and eyes filling with tears.
“It’s really up to us who can get around to try to look out for our neighbors,” Joan said, noting that an elderly gentleman in her neighborhood was wandering outside his home in a confused state today.
The Schaafs were excited that President George W. Bush was coming to their town. The convoy of military helicopters carrying and escorting the president passed overhead while they talked.
Although a Christian for about ten years, Jim had never been baptized by immersion and looked forward to the ceremony.
“I wanted to” be baptized, he said. “There’s always next week and the week after.”
Hurricane Charley, he said, does not cause him to question his faith.
“It makes me think,” Jim said, “that God’s with us to save our lives and show us His true power, and how … He sent His son for us to die on a cross so that we can all be saved of our sin and so that we can go on with our lives,” Jim said. “It looks terrible, but it’s a blessing that we’re alive.”
Joan added: “When I saw the steeple gone, I cried. I’m just grateful we got out of here. We just had a lesson on discernment. … Something said to me to get out.”
Jim rejects superstitions of those who draw attention to the fact that the hurricane hit Florida on the 13th — a Friday.
“I don’t put any stock in that Friday the 13th or any of that stuff,” he said.
The Schaafs said First Baptist Church is growing and reaching people with the Gospel — including their 8-year-old grandson who made a profession of faith in Christ recently during the church’s Vacation Bible School.
“Pastor Paul is [a] wonderful, very intelligent, godly man,” Jim said of the senior pastor.
The community is pulling together, Jim said.
“Everybody’s like a big family,” he said. “You ride up and down the street and people who have never talked to each other [are] asking, ‘Are you OK?’ and bringing food and bringing coffee and just making sure everybody’s OK.”
This story first appeared in the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.floridabaptistwitness.com