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Church’s response to fire evacuees a tangible expression of God’s love

PALATKA, Fla. (BP)–Walk in the back door of College Park Baptist Church and the first thing you see is a framed, counted cross-stitch wall hanging. It says, “Love is spoken here.” Members of the Palatka, Fla., congregation demonstrated the truth of that statement the weekend of July 4 as they opened their doors and their hearts to families displaced by threatening fires in Flagler County.
Harold Wilson, a deacon at College Park, and his wife, Mary Susan, had brought Mary Susan’s mother, Melba Brannam, a Bunnell resident and member of First Baptist Church there, to their home in Palatka on July 2. When they learned the next morning that 35,000 people were being evacuated from Flagler County, and that Highway 100-which comes through Palatka would be a major evacuation route, Wilson called pastor Sanford Colley, who agreed the church should make its facilities available if needed.
Wilson called local emergency management officials and extended the offer. At about 11:30 a.m., he got a call from the church.
“We have some evacuees here. What do we do?” the caller asked.
“Let them in,” Wilson said.
By the end of the day, the church — which typically runs about 100 in Sunday attendance — was housing 68 people.
Meanwhile, Mary Susan Wilson began calling church members to ask for help with meals for the evacuees. She talked to one person and left messages on three answering machines. From those contacts, she said, “The word got out.”
Church members Marie and Jake Johnson were frying fish and hushpuppies when they heard of the need. They grabbed up their lunch and brought it to the church.
Debbie Williamson had been to the grocery store. She stopped by her home long enough to “take out a few things that wouldn’t be relevant” and brought the rest of her groceries to the church.
Pastor Colley and his wife, Linda, though technically on vacation, came in and helped set up accommodations for guests. Linda, a registered nurse, stayed on duty at the shelter all night on Friday.
In addition to food, church members brought items such as sleeping bags and air mattresses.
“A lot of people said, ‘If I get it back, fine; if I don’t, fine,'” Williamson recalled.
Response from the community as a whole was similarly generous, said David Sullivan, a member of the church and a Red Cross volunteer. When he went to grocery stores and other businesses to ask for donations of food and supplies, “it was beyond my wildest dreams.” Large quantities of eggs, milk, orange juice, coffee, day-old bakery items and paper products were quickly offered. Three local pizza establishments provided pizzas for one meal.
Sullivan recalled stopping by to deliver packages at another shelter, where people from a nearby low-income housing project were preparing and serving food for evacuees. He found the shelter was low on food, “but they were going to give us half of what they had” if it was needed, he said.
The final guest total at College Park was 70 people, most of them from Palm Coast, a few others from Bunnell and Espanola. A number of them were Russian, Ukrainian and Polish immigrants, some of whom could speak little or no English.
The fires caught many residents with no warning and no time to prepare for evacuation, Sullivan noted. Some arrived without a change of clothes or personal-care items or cash. One woman had just closed on the purchase of a new house, had been there an hour, and had gone out to shop for new blinds. When the evacuation order came, she was forced to leave without going back to her home, taking only what she had in her possession at the store.
One woman at the College Park shelter had just been discharged from the hospital the day of the evacuation and did not have the prescription medicines she needed. Shelter workers contacted a Palatka pharmacy, which provided a temporary supply of the medications at no cost.
A couple who came to College Park had stayed at a motel the night before. They had paid for an additional night, which took the rest of their money, and “they were wandering the streets trying to find some food,” Williamson recalled. In addition to providing shelter, church members assisted the couple in contacting the motel and obtaining a refund for the unused night.
Added to the physical and material needs were a variety of emotional needs, with shelter residents not knowing when they would be allowed to go home, or whether they would have a home to go back to.
Evacuee Kathy Dalton of Bunnell, while staying at College Park, read in the newspaper that the 43-year-old father of one of her co-workers had died while the Bunnell families were going through the evacuation. “I don’t know how their family’s coping,” she said. “That makes what I’m going through seem like nothing.”
Church members did their best to meet needs and make everyone feel welcome.
The church’s Fourth of July barbeque was held as planned, including the unexpected guests in the meal, games and fellowship. The guests also were included in the Sunday morning worship service.
“You didn’t take the wrong road when you came down Highway 100,” Robert J. Cook told the evacuees as he began the sermon.
Then Cook, director of missions for St. Johns River Baptist Association, shared briefly about another choice of roads — the choice between the path to destruction and the path that leads to eternal life.
Prior to the worship service, church members met in the worship center for one big Sunday school class, as Sunday school rooms were being used to house evacuees.
Wilson said the families, some of whom had come to College Park after staying in gymnasium-type accommodations, were especially appreciative of the privacy afforded by the Sunday school rooms. “Somebody called us the Hilton of the evacuee centers,” she said.
And guests appreciated the spirit in which the services were provided.
“You couldn’t ask for people to be any nicer,” said evacuee Wanda Phillips.
“And they did it with a smile,” added her husband, William.
Kathy “Kat” Brown, a Red Cross volunteer nurse from Jacksonville working at College Park on Sunday afternoon, said she was impressed by the faith and positive attitudes of the evacuees, despite their uncertain situation.
Noting that the pastor of her Catholic congregation had been speaking about how Jesus sent his disciples out to minister, leaving their belongings and trusting in God’s providence, she commented, “I was struck by the similarity to the people here.”
Members of College Park said they were blessed as they blessed others. “Everybody got in the servant spirit,” observed deacon George Dale, and the church family was brought closer together as a result.
College Park’s guests were able to return home the morning of July 7. None found their homes burned, the church reported. But many evacuees weren’t so fortunate.
Nurse Dalton emphasized the need for churches and communities to provide continued support for people affected by the fires. “Even when these shelters close,” she said, “they’re going to have tremendous needs.”

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  • Shari Schubert