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Church plays key role in Florida fire fights

ORMOND BEACH, Fla. (BP)–“Hey … there may be something to all this prayer stuff.” That’s what a television cameraman surmised to one of his buddies on his way out the front doors of the Peabody Auditorium in Daytona Beach, Fla., July 5, just after a big raindrop crashed into his forehead.
He had been covering for his Orlando-based station the regular Sunday morning worship service of Riverbend Community Church, which included several appeals that God would send rain to central Florida.
That first splashing raindrop preceded many others, continuing intermittently through the following Monday and giving hope for some relief from the fires that had been tormenting most of the 450,000 residents of the county. In fact, rain poured down so hard and wind became so gusty Monday afternoon that officials occupying the “city” of tents on the parking lot of the Riverbend church’s campus had to move their county command center inside the church.
Riverbend church, located on the western edge of Ormond Beach, became a beehive of fire-fighting activity about 24 hours before the wind-fueled fires threatened to overrun the suburban city of 35,000.
Senior pastor Roy Hargrave cancelled the church’s Wednesday evening service July 1 due to heavy smoke that had infiltrated the campus. The church facilities eventually were evacuated by fire and police officials. At one point it looked like they might be a target of the county’s most fiercely raging fire.
As members of the Riverbend staff huddled in a prayer circle in the parking lot, watching trees go up in flame a quarter-mile south of them and seeing the fire inch closer, they were approached by a policeman who told them they should exit quickly.
“You must go now,” he said, noting the entire area was under a mandatory evacuation order. “It’s too big. We cannot stop this fire.”
The church officials reluctantly drove away, still praying God would spare the 16-month-old, $3 million facility, and God did, as shifting winds turned the fires from a northerly to an eastwardly direction.
About 20 of the church’s 45 acres burned, as did adjacent property to the west and south — including 65 acres the church is hoping to purchase — but the building was spared.
The next day, after a press conference to brief some 50 media representatives on efforts being made to squelch scores of fires within Ormond city limits, it was announced Riverbend would become fire-fighting headquarters.
Already in use by the Red Cross for about 10 days, preparing more than 2,000 meals a day for firefighters, the church became the hub of all planning and coordination by city, county, police and fire officials.
A church-wide barbeque picnic that was planned to celebrate the Fourth of July was cancelled, with all the purchased food for the 2,650-member congregation was fed to the firefighters.
“What a blessing Riverbend church has been to this effort,” said Ormond Beach Mayor Dave Hood. “And what a great, giving attitude toward doing whatever has been necessary to win the battle. Personally, I’m grateful to Roy Hargrave, his staff and his congregation in literally ‘giving’ us their facilities.”
Riverbend also opened its somewhat isolated youth center for some 50 firefighters to sleep on cots. The church also became the media center for Volusia County’s operation.
The continual activity, which included parking hundreds of fire trucks, police cars and media vans on the church parking lots, forced church officials to seek an alternative site for Sunday’s worship service.
The church was granted permission to use Daytona Beach’s Peabody Auditorium, a 2,000-seat facility near the beach. About 1,500 people, many of them evacuees from neighboring Flagler County, attended on Sunday morning, as did more than 50 media representatives — some from Europe. Two television stations carried most of the service live.
Tribute, including a standing ovation, was paid to firefighters from 44 states and other officials who were battling the blazes.
Hargrave preached from 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, … then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”
Among the numerous prayers for rain, Hargrave’s asked God to send a “drenching downpour on the parched and flaming ground.”
Even though rain was not even remotely in the weatherman’s forecast, God heard, just as he said he would … and answered.

Schaeffer is a correspondent for the Florida Baptist Witness.

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  • Jerry Schaeffer