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FIRST-PERSON: Southern Baptist Disaster Relief

POTOMAC, Md. (BP)–Across the entire length and width of Florida, millions of people were without power as the result of two huge hurricanes in weeks. With rotted food in refrigerators, some had nothing to eat for two days, and many were without hope.

However, on Wednesday, Sept. 8, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief crews were on their 28th continuous day of disciplined, organized assistance for the victims — first of Hurricane Charley then Hurricane Frances. Huge tractor trailers, each capable of cooking and serving 20,000 hot meals a week, rolled into place and began serving meals. Few grateful victims realized the nutritious meals they began to eat were cooked not by the Red Cross which delivered them but by 1,800 Southern Baptist volunteers.

North Carolina Baptist Men set up one feeding station in the parking lot of First Baptist Church of Melbourne, a smaller one at King Street Baptist Church in Cocoa and a third at Cornerstone Fellowship in Sebastian. Each cooking crew was accompanied by a recovery team equipped with chain saws and blue tarps to cover roofs which no longer kept out the daily rains.

On Wednesday, their first day on scene, 10,000 meals were served, 3,500 of which were in an open serving line at First Baptist in Melbourne. More would have been served, had the Red Cross sent more delivery vehicles. The lucky recipients ate Salisbury steak, green beans, hot rolls and butter, fruit cocktail, cookies and lemonade or coffee.

One woman in her mid-80s marveled that unpaid Southern Baptist volunteers came to fix her house: “I was the only one on my street without hope. You guys showed up, prayed with me, and showed me the love of Christ,” she told volunteers.

She looked at the yellow shirts and caps emblazoned with North Carolina Baptist Men logos and marveled, “You are heaven’s helpers, God’s angels,” reported Dale Duncan, director of the North Carolina contingent.

Neither he nor other Southern Baptist volunteers saw any adult children of the frail elderly come to help their own parents. But Southern Baptists reached out to them.

The scale of help delivered by the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief crews for Hurricane Charley alone is now tallied up. A stunning 886,107 meals were served by 2,000 volunteers who gave 19,637 volunteer days. They performed 3,368 cleanup jobs for homes damaged by the powerful storm, provided 16,947 showers and ran 1,899 laundry loads.

Showers? Laundry loads? Yes, some of the Southern Baptist vehicles contain portable showers and Laundromats.

Duncan, a retired school superintendent who served weeks helping Charley’s casualties in the Orlando area, drove part-way home to Georgia and then was directed by the Southern Baptists North American Mission Board to wait a couple of days to return to help victims of Frances.

Of course, many other denominations and groups were serving hurricane victims — United Methodists, Mennonites, Seventh Day Adventists, Catholic Charities, Samaritan’s Purse.

But none deliver so much help to so many as the Southern Baptists. Terry Henderson, one of Southern Baptists’ national relief coordinators, interviewed on his cell phone, said this service “is one of the best ways to prove the relevance of our faith.”

Henderson predicted that the relief efforts for Hurricane Frances would be one of the largest operations Southern Baptists have ever undertaken. “The Red Cross wants us to provide a million meals a week,” he said. “Certainly it will be in the hundreds of thousands a day.”

The Red Cross, which is chartered by Congress, buys the food which is cooked by the Baptists and then delivered by Red Cross vehicles. Similarly, the Salvation Army depends on Southern Baptists to cook the food it delivers.

However, due to a shortage of Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers, Baptists also were driving their vehicles in parts of Florida.

What has it been like? “Just standing still is hot. You start sweating before doing anything,” said Duncan, who came from North Carolina’s mountains.

To him this is nothing new. In 16 years, Duncan’s greatest love has been serving in foreign missions where he coordinated relief efforts in Africa three times, Germany twice and in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Alaska; 32 days to help after the Indian earthquake; feeding victims in the Kosovo War, the Gaza Strip, etc.

Truly, these Southern Baptists are modern Good Samaritans. They acted on Jesus’s words, “I was hungry, and you fed me.”
Copyright © 2004 Michael J. McManus. Used by permission. Based in Potomac, Md., McManus is a syndicated columnist, author and speaker whose weekly Ethics & Religion column appears in more than 40 daily newspapers across the country with a combined circulation of more than 1 million.

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  • Michael J. McManus