News Articles

Churches enlist in battle against Georgia wildfire

WAYCROSS, Ga. (BP)–Georgia Baptists have opened their churches as well as stocks of canned goods in the fight against the worst wildfire in the state’s history.

More than 100,000 acres, 135 square miles and 22 homes have been lost in the past two weeks as drought conditions fueled by lightning strikes have closed schools, businesses and major highways in southeast portions of the state.

At one point, Sweat Memorial Baptist Church in Waycross provided facilities for 400 students from Ruskin Elementary School who were evacuated when smoke conditions –- and flames coming as close as 150 feet to their school -– closed their campus.

Pastor Freddie Smith and Ware County superintendent Joseph Barrow welcomed students and teachers assembled in the church sanctuary as they distributed 300 lapboards for students to use in rooms with an abundance of chairs but no desks.

At the church, space for Sunday School and choir rehearsal became classrooms. Staff offices were loaned out to guidance counselors. The fellowship hall was converted into a cafeteria.

The students were bused seven miles from the school to the church, which was located away from the fire line. The blaze has since shifted from Waycross and has moved into the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge.

Caring for the needs of nearly 830 firefighters -– including 200 inmates battling the blaze -– and providing needed supplies became a major way for churches to minister.

Baby wipes, towels, lip balm, sunscreen and Visine became small treasures for those keeping the fire from homes. Central Baptist Church was one of many donating such items, though associate pastor Porky Haynes was quick to credit the entire Waycross community.

“These people have responded in an incredible way,” he pointed out May 1. “There has been a tremendous cooperative effort in getting sports drinks and other liquids to firemen.”

Churches, including Central, made their facilities available for evacuees, Haynes added.

“Something like this pushes a nerve button and calls people together. It lets us know how important it is to pull together and help others. It’s still so smoky out there right now that it looks like a fog bank. The biggest thing we need right now is to pray for rain.”

Members of Pleasant Valley Baptist Church combined their Words of Encouragement ministry with handing out supplies. Eye drops, pain reliever and sunscreen were combined with Bible verses for a physical and spiritual lift.

“Our church was ready to jump in and be involved,” said pastor John Martin, who also is a chaplain with disaster relief. “Some of our folks are trained in the feeding units and others just wanted to help. Many have been going out as early as six in the morning to hand out supplies.”

“The reality is that every church in the association contributed in some way,” said Freddy Garner, missions team leader for Piedmont/Okefenokee Baptist Assocation. “We’ve been overwhelmed with support.”

Georgia Baptist disaster relief coordinator Stuart Lang said the state’s lone feeding unit was pulled out of the area on April 28 after six days on site. As the blaze shifted, Salvation Army feeding units offered to take up the work in their area.
With additional reporting by Scott Barkley.

    About the Author

  • Joe Westbury