PORT ST. JOE, Fla. (BP) — While Hurricane Michael brought the devastation that so often comes with a storm of its magnitude, Florida Baptists are discovering some unexpected blessings through their Churches Helping Churches initiative.
“Our church-to-church effort is designed to identify a non-storm affected church that is willing to partner with a storm-impacted church to serve as the point of contact for coordinating recovery responses and efforts for that specific church,” said Lewis Miller, the Florida Baptist Convention’s west Florida regional catalyst. Churches from other states also have indicated a readiness to help.
Many Florida Baptist churches were on high alert before Hurricane Michael even made landfall. First Baptist Church in Orange Park was among them, where lead pastor David Tarkington said he and others prayed over the church’s response as the storm approached, knowing that they would probably “give and go.”
“Like others, we were glued to our televisions and constantly updating the news reports on our phones and computers, just to see the latest,” Tarkington said. “Many were calling and texting friends and family members living at or near the areas now known globally.”
FBC Orange Park is partnering with Long Avenue Baptist Church in Port St. Joe.
“After contacting [the pastor], it was clear the church could use help,” Tarkington said. “They had just removed all pews, carpet and furniture from their worship center. These had been damaged beyond repair.”
First Baptist has been collecting funds for the Port St. Joe church to begin its recovery. Once Tarkington gets the all-clear from Long Avenue’s pastor Eli Prine, they will send teams of volunteers to work alongside church members, restoring the church facility and ministering to the community.
Brad Gwartney, pastor of administration and discipleship at Stetson Baptist Church in DeLand, knew his church would jump in with aid as well. As a disaster relief chaplain, Gwartney had firsthand knowledge not only of the physical needs but the spiritual needs of the area. His church, along with Central Baptist Church in Sanford, have teamed up to help Immanuel Baptist Church in Panama City. A congregation that is 118 years old, Immanuel has been without a senior pastor and attendance has dwindled. Gwartney said they are ready to help with anything the church needs from cleanup and repairs to leadership and pulpit supply.
“We want to help them whatever the future holds and as they evaluate God’s calling on their facility,” Gwartney said. “We want to stand beside [them] and not overshadow [them].”
Gwartney said this is also a good opportunity for two central Florida churches to be a part of a Kingdom legacy that’s beyond their own. And they want to use the lessons they learn to be better prepared should a large-scale disaster ever strike them. To that end, there will be a meeting next month for Central Florida churches to come together and think about their own hurricane response.
“How would we respond if we were in the same place as the panhandle — are we ready? Are we prepared to host DR teams?” Gwartney said. “We’re going to play the ‘what if?’ game.”
West Bradenton Baptist Church also is partnering with a Port St. Joe church — First Baptist. West Bradenton pastor Sam Rainer said his church has been sending supplies but as the power is coming back online, some needs go beyond food and water, namely bug spray. Rainer said soon they will be sending teams of volunteers to help mud out and do any other needed cleanup.
After Hurricane Irma when Rainer was displaced, FBC Port St. Joe took them in and helped provide support.
“Now it’s our turn,” Rainer said.
Rainer said he’s seen some smaller churches team up to partner with a sister church in the panhandle and he’s seen Baptist associations do the same. No matter the size of a church, Rainer emphasized that every congregation can help, and it’s important for churches to act quickly.
“Many [churches] don’t have insurance because wind and flood insurance is too expensive,” Rainer said. “I would imagine many that need help don’t have insurance — there will be a huge need.
“It’s time to get to work,” Rainer said. “Don’t just talk about it — send some people and go help someone.”
To give to the Hurricane Michael recovery effort, go to https://flbaptist.org/give. To find out how to partner with a church in the Florida panhandle, go to https://flbaptist.org/churcheshelpingchurches.