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Disaster relief volunteers lauded for being ‘odd for God’

ARLINGTON, Texas (BP)–“It’s good to be odd for God.”

That’s what Jim Burton, director of volunteer mobilization at the North American Mission Board, told yellow-shirted disaster relief leaders at the annual Disaster Relief Roundtable, April 25-27 at Fielder Road Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.

Burton quoted 1 Peter 2:9, which describes Christians as “a peculiar people” set apart to do God’s will. Disaster relief volunteers exhibit abnormal behavior as they travel hundreds of miles in crowded vehicles — often with strangers — to volunteer, he said.

“It’s not normal to choose to sleep on a floor or shower in a trailer that has wheels on it. It’s not normal to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning — if you even get to sleep at all — to cook thousands of meals, often in high heat and high humidity,” Burton said.

Carrying chainsaws to other states to remove debris from the houses of strangers, packing up materials to care for children they’ve not yet met, and risking health by shoveling mud and muck out of flooded homes are other indicators that Southern Baptist volunteers don’t lead normal lives.

“Folks, you’re peculiar, you’re different because God has done something in your lives,” Burton said. While sitting at home viewing a disaster on television might be easier, he noted, “Our norm is defined by our calling, however peculiar that might be to the rest of the world.”

Burton cited examples from among the 51,782 trained Southern Baptist volunteers — half of them new to disaster relief during 2005.

Sarah Trimble, an assistant state feeding coordinator from Florida, led feeding units in Hattiesburg, Miss., and Lake Charles, La., and later served as a liaison to FEMA for Hurricane Dennis and to the American Red Cross during Hurricane Wilma.

Looking across the audience to Trimble, Burton said, “Sarah, you’re not tired and you’d do it again. That’s odd and I’m glad,” prompting cheers in the crowd.

Jean and Jim Dunn, a California couple who retired to Tennessee, immediately volunteered to provide relief for Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. Burton praised the African American couple’s faithfulness, while urging the predominantly white audience “to continue to open the gate to invite all of God’s volunteers to work with us.”

Among the volunteers Burton met in New Orleans was a multi-generational team that traveled from the state of Washington, taking advantage of a spring break to include college students along with retirees.

“It was a beautiful moment seeing a senior adult and some 20-somethings telling this pregnant woman with a shell-shocked look, ‘We want to take your hand and pray with you right here.’”

Even the Cooperative Program’s role in funding disaster relief is outside the norm, Burton explained. “Our choice is to cooperate — it’s our strength.” In less than 20 years, God has taken Southern Baptist Disaster Relief “from buddy burners to mobile units that can produce tens of thousands of meals,” Burton said. “He’s chosen you for this task. You are set apart. You are His treasure, His possession and that’s worth celebrating.”

During the 2005 hurricane season, 500 Southern Baptist Disaster Relief units representing 41 state conventions operated for 184 days, utilizing 21,000 volunteers whose time amounted to 165,748 volunteer days. That accounted for more than 14.5 million of the 17,124,738 meals prepared by Southern Baptist crews all year.

In the aftermath of the hurricanes, disaster relief volunteers purified 21,595 gallons of water — nearly a third of the 68,846 gallons offered in 2005; facilitated 103,556 of the 155,967 showers made available; completed 25,826 of the 28,253 loads of laundry; relayed 3,107 ham radio messages; and cared for 7,817 children of displaced families.

Activity throughout the year expanded to a total of 166 responses to disasters and included the removal of 13,986 cubic yards of debris and the repair of 7,246 buildings — far more than the 2,683 reported for 2004, which was double the prior year’s number. NAMB reported 187 new units placed into service last year, including those focused on chainsaw recovery, mud-out and rebuilding equipment, kitchens, command and communication lines, as well as childcare, shower, laundry and water purification facilities.

Additional opportunities for volunteer service will come through several new ministries being piloted by NAMB, Burton said, including four-day “Families on Mission” trips and on-site adult training in church planting principles and evangelism skills tentatively called “The Grove.” Volunteer mobilization also is partnering with the Louisiana Baptist Convention and New Orleans-area churches in a two-year effort to provide as many as 50,000 volunteers through “Operation Noah Rebuild.” Information is available by calling 1-877-934-0808.

In spite of suffering $1.5 million in damage, Calvary Baptist Church in New Orleans became a coordination point for Southern Baptist volunteers who prayed, evangelized and shared the love of Jesus in a tangible way following Hurricane Katrina. Over 126 days, they met up to 1,200 cars per day in dispensing nearly a million meals on-site. Pastor Keith Manuel reported that continuing projects would involve rebuilding houses, hosting volunteers living in RVs and refurbishing the church’s damaged education building.

Manuel reminded volunteers of the Apostle Paul’s challenge to “not get tired of doing good; for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up” (Galatians 6:9). “Thank you for making a difference in my hometown on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, strengthening churches that made a difference in my Christian pilgrimage,” Manuel said.

Jim Didlake, Mississippi Baptists’ disaster relief director, also expressed appreciation for the work of Southern Baptist volunteers that extended well beyond the devastation in Louisiana.

“States that have been with us the entire time continue to send hundreds of volunteers,” Didlake said. “In the early days we told churches the secret to recovery is what we do with the impact disaster relief teams across the nation made here.”

Churches that lost a quarter to a third of their membership through relocations are finding new growth in reaching out to displaced residents, Didlake noted.

Recalling a deacon’s comment that members of his church never wanted to go back to what they were before, he said the congregation had learned to love and care for others. “You made that happen,” Didlake told the roundtable audience, “as you touched lives and made a difference.”

Hugh Carter of Jacksonville, Fla., said the Disaster Roundtable meeting provides an opportunity to update skills, evaluate the past year’s efforts and say hello to friends he has met during 25 years of volunteering. It’s a brief time of rest, he added, between the seasons of tornadoes, hurricanes and floods.

A chainsaw team sent out from the Baptist association Don Miller serves in Lake County, Fla., reported 57 professions of faith, reminding him of the main purpose of their efforts.

“When you go in to help even a small area, they’re very open to the Gospel,” he told Baptist Press. Miller said he is glad evangelistic training is incorporated into all disaster relief preparation. “We don’t just go in to get notches on our Bibles. The system is set up for follow-up of those we reach,” he said.

“You can get so busy cutting trees and feeding people,” Miller said. “We’re good about witnessing, but we don’t want to just leave and drop people. This is a good reminder to do better follow-up.”

As NAMB has begun to base its operation in local churches, Carter said, “They are in a position to minister long-term.”

For Calvary Baptist in New Orleans, the extended presence and impact of hundreds of volunteers put Manuel’s church on the map. Manuel used to be heartbroken when he randomly asked area store clerks for directions to the church.

“Then people started coming in droves,” Manuel said, as they turned to the church for help. “If you go to our grocery stores, they know where we are because of folks like you willing to make a commitment, willing to serve.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter