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Disaster relief pioneer Cameron Byler dies

BRENTWOOD, Tenn. (BP)–Cameron Byler, a pioneer in Southern Baptist disaster relief work and men’s missions, died April 28 at a hospital near his home in San Antonio. He was 79.

Byler served as director of Baptist Men and national coordinator of disaster relief for the former Southern Baptist Convention Brotherhood Commission, based in Memphis, Tenn., from 1985-89. Byler joined the staff of the Tennessee Baptist Convention in 1989 as brotherhood and state disaster relief director and served until his retirement in 1995. (When the Brotherhood Commission was disbanded during a Southern Baptist Convention restructuring in the mid-1990s, disaster relief work became part of the North American Mission Board, based in Alpharetta, Ga.)

Mickey Caison, one of Byler’s successors in disaster relief at the national level, noted that Byler was one of the people “who helped lay the foundation for disaster relief as we know it today.”

Byler was the first national coordinator of Southern Baptist disaster relief who helped negotiate the first agreement between Southern Baptists and the American Red Cross for a cooperative response to U.S. disasters, Caison said.

Byler also was a pioneer in leading disaster relief to move from the “fish cooker” style of mass feeding to the more industrial equipment that volunteers use today to prepare a far greater number of meals, Caison said.

After earning a bachelor’s degree at Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas, and coaching at various Texas high schools, Byler began his ministry career in 1956 at Buckner Baptist Boy’s Ranch in central Texas. Six years later, he became activities director at First Baptist Church in Lubbock, Texas -– at the time, only one of a few such positions in the Southern Baptist Convention. He moved on to serve as Royal Ambassadors director on the staff of Texas Baptist Men and as manager of Zephyr Baptist Encampment on Lake Mathis near Corpus Christi, Texas.

When Hurricane Beulah struck Texas in 1967, Byler and fellow Texas Baptist Bob Dixon became the SBC’s first-ever disaster relief team, serving food prepared on “buddy-burners” from the back of a pickup truck in the wake of the Category 5 hurricane that killed 58 Texans.

In 1981, Byler and his first wife, Joyce (who died in 1988), moved to Anchorage, Alaska, where he served four years on the Alaska Baptist Convention’s staff in church planting and Baptist Men’s ministry. He built the first Baptist recreational camp in Alaska, said Jim Furgerson, who would follow Byler’s footsteps in Texas Baptist Men’s ministry and as national disaster relief director.

“He was a man of vision and mission,” Furgerson said of Byler. “He was a pioneer in volunteer missions, disaster relief, men’s mission education and church recreation. Cameron was one of those ground-breakers and a change agent’s change agent. He was one of the first Southern Baptist men brave enough to take volunteers on challenging international response missions into foreign countries like Albania and Nicaragua.”

When Byler was tapped by the Brotherhood Commission to develop and execute a national strategy on how the Southern Baptist Convention would respond to disasters nationwide, NAMB staffer Jim Burton noted, “Cameron’s mark was to create a national umbrella that gave us the congruency we have today -– providing disaster relief with one voice, with coordination and integrity in catastrophic and multi-state disaster responses.”

Byler “loved the Brotherhood work and committed his life to that,” Burton said. Today, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief is a national network of more than 70,000 volunteers and 1,300 units capable of responding to disasters.

Byler “had a passion for people,” Caison said. “He wanted to help them physically, but he also wanted that help to introduce them to Jesus Christ so they could get to know Him personally.”

“If Cameron was your friend, you could count on him for anything,” said Douglas Beggs, a recently retired NAMB staffer who hired Byler for the national disaster relief position in the mid-1980s. “He was a great giver, both of his time and himself,” Beggs said. “He loved reaching young boys and men for Christ and spent so much of his Baptist career in RA and recreational work.”

James Porch, executive director of the Tennessee convention, noted that along life’s journey God “brings His special persons into other people’s lives who, by their presence and testimony, make a significant difference.” Byler’s personality “gave forth a Christian radiance that showed a sensitivity to the pain and hurt of many people,” Porch said.

In addition to his first wife, Byler was preceded in death by his second wife, Andrea, who died earlier this year. He is survived by two children from his first marriage, Barbara Garland of Portland, Ore., and Chris Byler of San Antonio; a foster son, Brad Gray of Nashville, Tenn.; three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Services for Byler will be at 1 p.m. Saturday, May 3, at Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio.
Lonnie Wilkey is editor of the Baptist & Reflector, newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention; Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board.

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