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Conn. ‘surprised by grace’ of DR response to storms

SOUTHBURY, Conn. (BP) — Hundreds of Southern Baptists from 13 states are helping Connecticut residents after tornadoes destroyed 300 homes there in May, disaster relief (DR) leader Tim Buehner told Baptist Press.

Chaplaincy has been at the forefront of DR work slated to continue through mid-July in at least five communities where an estimated 98 percent of residents don’t recognize Jesus as Savior, said Buehner, mobilization and ministry evangelism coordinator for the Baptist Convention of New England (BCNE).

“They’re just completely surprised by grace,” Buehner said of nearly 170 homeowners whom volunteers have helped since May 17. “That’s exactly what we aim for in this ministry.

“So we praise God for this, because with all of the teams that have been involved and the crews, coming from all across the country on their own dime,” Buehner said, “homeowners are just completely amazed by this, and of course that opens the doors … for us to be able to talk about the Lord who surprised us by grace. And it’s just been marvelous.”

Four tornadoes with wind speeds of up to 95 mph (EF1), and several “macrobursts” with wind speeds up to 110 mph, struck Connecticut communities May 15, the National Weather Service reported. Macrobursts, thunderstorm downdrafts that move in opposite directions compared to tornadoes, killed two people Connecticut, the NWS said.

Six people have made professions of faith, and volunteers have distributed more than 130 Bibles while conducting repairs and removing large downed trees that destroyed 300 homes across 50 miles, Buehner said.

Christ the Redeemer Church in Southbury is the host church for DR volunteers and equipment. At any given time, 70 to 90 volunteers have stayed at the church, and 300 are slated to help through July 14. Christ Redeemer is following up with new believers and those who’ve expressed an interest, pastor Bryan Sims told BP.

“This is a great opportunity for folks to see that God is real and He does transform lives,” Sims said, “when they see people coming from all over the country who are willing to sacrifice their time and their resources to come serve people they’ve never met. That definitely has been a great conversation starter as to the reality of the Gospel.”

In addition to visits, Sims will follow up with letters and phone calls to homeowners receiving DR help.

“Ultimately, we want them to feel loved and encouraged by the disaster relief ministry, our church’s ministry, but we also hope that it will lead to deeper spiritual questions and searching,” Sims said. “And ultimately we hope they find the hope of the Gospel.”

Among volunteers was Patrick Ryan, a chaplain and director of mission from Missouri. In Connecticut, where Southern Baptist disaster relief efforts are relatively unknown, Ryan views the work as unparalleled in opening doors to the Gospel.

“I honestly think that in the long run, this mission trip might be one of the ones that opens (Gospel) doors the most,” said Ryan, a chaplaincy trainer with the Missouri Valley Baptist Association in Slater, Mo.

“They could not understand why we were willing to do this for free, without having any reimbursements or anything else,” Ryan told BP. “This community here had to be opened up to the fact that we cared about them, no matter what they did. And that’s really more of the essence of the Christian life, is that the world needs to understand that God cares for them, and as an extension we care for them.

“Whether we’re hated or persecuted, we still care for them,” Ryan said. “Disaster relief is one of the few times we actually get to show God’s love.”

In the hilly, wooded residential areas of Southbury, Brookfield, New Fairfield, Oxford and others that sustained damage, homeowners might typically have 20 downed trees on their property. The physical work has been strenuous and vigorous, Buehner said. Many were surprised and thankful that the casualties did not exceed two in Connecticut.

“Even people who do not know Jesus, but have a sense of God, were able to say, ‘We thank God that more people didn’t get killed and we wondered that that didn’t happen, because this thing was bad,'” he said. “And they look at the damage and wonder about that, and of course we’re going to speak to God’s preservation of life, His love for people and His wonderful Son our Savior, who continues to want to reach people with the Good News of what He has done for their lives.”

In addition to Missouri and Connecticut, volunteers from 13 states responded to the outreach, Buehner said, including Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire in the BCNE; the Baptist Convention of Pennsylvania/South Jersey, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and Southern Baptist conventions in Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Georgia, South Carolina and Kentucky. The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina donated resources, Buehner said.

“I am extremely thankful for the many Southern Baptists that have come here and poured out their lives,” Buehner said. “It’s a tremendous investment, it’s a wonderful ministry, and I pray more Southern Baptists get involved in this, because sooner or later, disaster will strike a community.”