News Articles

Disaster relief brings recognition for Minn./Wis. Southern Baptists

MARSHALL, Minn. (BP)–Seven Southern Baptists from Calvary Baptist Church here helped with sandbagging efforts in Granite Falls, Minn., to stay the course of the rampaging Minnesota River in March.

“We didn’t make much impact,” Pastor David Sundeen said. “They didn’t know Southern Baptists were here” in south-central Minnesota.

But the people living on both sides of the North Dakota/Minnesota border know.

Disaster relief units from Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas were on the scene of the Red River Valley flooding in April even before ninety percent of the residents of Grand Forks, N.D. — a city of 50,000 people — completed their evacuation. And as residents return, in the midst of the damage to their homes, businesses and town they’re finding broad beams of hope in the 18-wheelers used by Southern Baptist feeding units.

They’re driving by the units 24 hours a day for no-cost meals served with a smile and a “God bless you.” It’s the first time the units have provided such a service, which is in addition to their usual method of taking meals via Red Cross emergency response vehicles to disaster victims.

Southern Baptists in Minnesota and Wisconsin are joining others from Wyoming, Alaska, Missouri, Tennessee and several other states in volunteering their time to assist the Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas units in providing about 150,000 meals so far.

“We didn’t have a productive presence in Granite Falls,” Sundeen said. “That’s the advantage we now have in the Red River Valley flooding. People there now know Southern Baptists. If we’d had the ability to have a feeding unit in Granite Falls, I believe we may have been able to start a church there next year.” The Oklahoma unit is based in Red Lake Falls, Minn., about 30 miles due east of Grand Forks, N.D. Red Lake Falls does not have a Southern Baptist congregation, but then, too many towns in the state don’t.

Too many counties in the state don’t. There just hasn’t been enough time or enough Southern Baptist church starters.

Southtown Baptist Church in Bloomington, a Minneapolis suburb, was established in 1956, two years after Wisconsin’s first Southern Baptist Church, Midvale Baptist in Madison was started. The Minnesota/Wisconsin Southern Baptist Convention was constituted in 1983 with 85 congregations. It now has 181.

Today, Southern Baptist strength in Minnesota is centered in the southeastern portion of the state, including the twin cities of Minneapolis and state capital St. Paul, Mankato and Rochester, plus several smaller towns in that area.

Outside of that foothold, Marshall has started nine mission churches in the last 10 years in the southwestern part of the state; five live.

The only non-Anglo work north of the Twin Cities is a Korean congregation in St. Cloud, which also has two Anglo congregations. Everything in the state north of St. Cloud is in Northwoods Southern Baptist Association, perhaps the largest association in the SBC, in geographic terms.

Northwoods includes about 67,000 square miles of territory in Minnesota and spilling down across Lake Superior into northern Wisconsin. Bill Williamson, retired chaplain at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, south-central Minnesota, is interim director of missions for Northwoods Association.

In northern Minnesota, Southern Baptists have a presence in Alexandria, Brainerd, Bemidji, Grand Rapids, Hibbing, Duluth, International Falls, plus smaller towns Hill City, Floodwood, Alborn, Cloquet, Baudette and Warroad, Minn.

That’s all.

“There are towns everywhere that have no evangelical witness, and I’m not talking just Southern Baptist,” Sundeen said. “There are entire counties with no evangelical witness. People’s eternal destiny is riding on whether we succeed or not in establishing churches and missions here.”

Church starter Sundeen, who was born in Iowa and received his seminary training at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, has an insider’s perspective on how to grow a Minnesota Southern Baptist church.

“Depending on where you go in the state, you’re going to grow a church in different ways,” he said. “When you’re in an urban setting people tend to think of working in groups to get something done. When you’re in a rural setting and they come from farms where they’re the boss and everything is done by consensus and survival is success, it’s a different mentality.

“Up here Lutheran and Catholic are the dominant religions and people look at Baptists with a bit of confusion, especially Southern Baptists,” Sundeen said. “They ask, ‘Why in the world are you here?’ There’s some mistrust, especially from Catholics who have been told they don’t even want to be around Baptists.

“To get them to come to church you’ve got to overcome the obstacle of Baptist,” the pastor said. “You’ve got to develop a personal relationship. Once they trust you, the (denominational) designation doesn’t bother them.”

Calvary, Marshall, will dedicate its second-unit building May 18, a new worship center plus offices and rest rooms. The original sanctuary is being converted to a fellowship hall/education space. About 130 people attend Calvary’s Sunday morning service, up from 25 when Sundeen was called as pastor in 1987.

“People won’t come to just hear fantastic preaching,” Sundeen said. “You have to open up all kinds of different doors for the church. You have to be out in the community, providing services.”

Calvary involves about 450 children each summer in backyard Bible clubs led by church members and an HMB-sponsored outside group. Calvary hosts concerts at the church, sponsors divorce recovery and Bible study groups in homes, participates in parachurch Christian women’s and men’s organizations.

In Minnesota, churches grow when relationships are established, Sundeen said. His words were echoed by Wayne Bandy, director of missions for the Twin Cities Metro Association, which includes 28 congregations.

“We’re working very hard just to build relationships with other church groups so that we in a sense convey to them that we are working with them,” Bandy said. “The attitude sometimes is that we’re egotistical, that we’re the only ones. So we try to show we value what they’re doing as well.”

Ken Smith, pastor at First Baptist Church of Monticello, north of the Twin Cities, is reaping the benefit of those established relationships as well as the publicity given to Southern Baptist disaster relief efforts. He is affiliated with the Monticello Ministerial Alliance, which is planning to assist Grand Forks, N.D., residents with clean-up efforts.

Because of the publicity, the alliance is looking to him and Southern Baptists for instructions in what to do, where and when, Smith said. This has been a breakthrough in developing relationships in the city of 5,000 people where he ministers.

Elsewhere in the state, Southtown Baptist Church in Bloomington has made plans to help in the cleanup effort over the Memorial Day weekend. Several other Minnesota churches plan to be part of that convoy.

At least one carload of Southern Baptist volunteers from the Twin Cities Metro Association has been going up each day to help in the feeding in Grand Forks. They leave after work, drive five hours, sack out at Calvary Baptist Church in Emerado, N.D., and get up early in the morning to assist at the Texas feeding unit. They make the five-hour return trip home after supper.

The Minnesota/Wisconsin associational WMU directors who gathered in Rochester, Minn., April 25-26 prayed for the relief efforts and bought bottled water to be used as part of a city-wide gift to flood victims.

Ridgewood Baptist Church in Bemidji donated the use of its parsonage for a flood-victimized family.

“Think about it,” Director of Missions Bandy wrote in an e-mail to Southern Baptist leaders in Minnesota in which he described how Ken Smith networked in Monticello. “There might be contacts you have with other churches in your community which might bring similar interest.”

To the best of his knowledge, Bandy said, no Southern Baptist volunteer from Minnesota had ever before participated in a disaster relief effort. Discussions in vehicles returning each night from Grand Forks turn to training and preparation for Minnesotans interested in disaster relief.

“It was satisfying,” volunteer Jim Swabb said. “Tiring, but satisfying. We got to see the committed kind of desire of Texas Baptist Men and their disaster relief teams and it was just inspiring. We got to see Southern Baptists from — I just couldn’t believe it — they were just from all over. That was inspiring. And you had your gratification immediately. You were there and what you were doing you could see the results.

“I was listening to one Red Cross driver,” Swabb continued. “He was saying several people hadn’t eaten in three or four days. It was good to know the food was getting to people who needed it.”

Sundeen, Calvary Marshall pastor, said for Minnesotans, it was good to know they had a part, and that one ‘good’ to come from the disaster would be a heightened, positive awareness of Southern Baptists in their state.

“This is a tragic time but a very opportune time,” Sundeen said. “People up and down the Red River Valley are going to remember that Southern Baptists were here, feeding us, helping us mud out. We’re going to be ministering to them as we work beside them, and if we’re sensitive to God’s leading, we’ll be able to step in and do even more ministry after the cleanup is done.

“There will be churches started from this,” Sundeen said. “That will be the blessing.”