ARCADIA, Fla. (BP)–The Sunshine State is famous for its fruit, but it wasn’t citrus products that were on my mind as I surveyed the destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Charley. Reminders of a different kind of produce seemed to follow me on my trek.
I stopped first Sat., Aug. 14, to see if there was damage at First Baptist Church, Orlando. One building lost a large portion of a wall, but it was the trees down in a particular place that caught my attention. Parking lots at the expansive property of First Baptist are labeled with the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) -– attributes of Christian character found among all true believers in Christ. There, next to “Gentleness,” lay several very large pine trees uprooted completely as if they were twigs.
Charley sure wasn’t gentle with those trees. Nor was he as he left a swath of destruction from Punta Gorda to Daytona Beach.
As I drove Sunday, Aug. 15, throughout North Port, Punta Gorda, Fort Myers and Cape Coral, and then north on Highway 17 from Port Charlotte to Arcadia to Wauchula, peace was hard to see in the shattered homes and broken lives -– even though the Peace River runs through this area victimized by Charley.
Having moved to Florida in 2001, this is my first up-close and personal view of disaster; I’ve certainly never seen catastrophe of this scope and magnitude. Although a picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words, even the best photographer (which I’m most certainly not) cannot fully capture what Charley has wrought. I’m frustrated that the pictures I took did not truly demonstrate the awesome destruction.
But the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of Christians helping those in need couldn’t be missed even by my camera. Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-control –- they were all there. John Henry, from Pearl, Miss., was scarce with his words Aug. 15 –- I could tell he would have much preferred to be directing the first meal preparation by a 23-person Mississippi and Alabama team than talking to a reporter. But the leader of the feeding unit based at First Baptist Church, Arcadia, was kind and gentle, and the love and joy of Christ was clear.
“We’ll be here as long as we need to be,” he said in a simple, unaffected manner. “We’re glad to be here and glad to be of use, serving in our own way to spread the Gospel; anybody who will listen, we share the Gospel with them, also.”
Henry said it wasn’t a hard decision to volunteer for this job, which he has been doing since 1994 –- even though it meant taking vacation days from his fulltime job. “You get great satisfaction from coming in and satisfying a need … and we have been on the receiving end of this, also. And we know what good it is.”
Closer to home –- but certainly not just around the corner –- Don Setterburg, from First Baptist Church of Fort Walton Beach, exuded the same fruit as Henry. Helping at the command center located at South Biscayne Baptist Church in North Port, Setterburg told me, “I think everyone who’s here wants to be here; nobody’s been forced to come.” Although retired, he works part-time at Eglin Air Force Base. This is his second deployment, having gone to New York City’s Ground Zero after 9/11.
“I do this because I feel it is a calling,” he said. “I believe that we can help other people that are less fortunate that ourselves.”
As I saw the devastation and witnessed the early response of Southern Baptists, I was reminded again of why cooperation is such a vital part of what it means to be Southern Baptist –- as well as any fruitful Christian. Volunteers from across the Southeast immediately started to pour into the Sunshine State -– a slogan that feels a little inappropriate in times like these –- mere hours after Charley had finished wreaking havoc. The vital work they are performing is undergirded and vastly enhanced because of our financial lifeline –- the Cooperative Program, as well as Florida Baptists’ sacrificial gifts to Maguire State Mission Offering.
With more than 4,000 missionaries across the globe, 10,000 seminarians studying to preach the Gospel and thousands of churches planted in our nation every year, there shouldn’t be any need for us to be reminded of the value of cooperation –- and the importance of the Cooperative Program. The entire Florida Baptist Convention staff has mobilized to assist Floridians from Punta Gorda to Daytona Beach. They need your prayers, especially disaster relief leader Fritz Wilson –- and financial support, both for the current crisis as well as the long term.
Let us show the fruit that only the Spirit of God can place in a man’s heart, so that our world “may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.