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Fla. volunteers aid churches in making stronger connections

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP)–From acting as staging points to providing a place to sleep, Baptist churches across Florida and Alabama have been hosting an army of volunteers after the multi-hurricane onslaught during September and August.

In Alabama, Tommy Puckett, director of disaster relief for the state Baptist convention’s board of missions, reflected: “This is the most intense, ongoing scattered disaster ever in [disaster relief’s] history.

“Nowhere have we been called on this many times. We’re running thin.”

That, added to needs of many Florida and Alabama volunteers in their own homes, means that several hundred volunteers from about 10 states have played crucial roles in meeting food, cleanup and chainsaw needs.

Puckett said he expects the relief effort to last for some weeks. “This is not one of those disasters you get over with in one week,” he said.

Larry Patterson, director of missions for Alabama’s Baldwin Baptist Association, commended the disaster relief teams working along the Gulf Coast.

At First Baptist Church in Robertsdale, Patterson cited the partnership between the Salvation Army, which supplied an equipped feeding station, and Southern Baptist volunteers who were staffing the unit.

“We couldn’t do what we’re doing without the Salvation Army,” he said. “It’s their feeding station, and Southern Baptists are cooking and serving.”

Rick Lance, the Alabama board of missions’ executive director who traveled through communities hit by Ivan, said he was “amazed at the breadth of the areas affected by Ivan. The hurricane is well named ‘Ivan the Terrible.’”

In Orange Beach, Ala., Pastor John Price of First Baptist Church voiced gratitude for the volunteer teams working along the Gulf Coast. “They’ll do a tremendous job and be a great witness in the community,” he said.

The church hosted a volunteer feeding team from Mississippi led by Kay Cassibry, director of Mississippi Woman’s Missionary Union. “We know Alabama [teams] are stretched out all over the place,” she said.

Cassibry lived in Elberta, Ala., as a child when her father was pastor of First Baptist Church there and continued to visit her grandparents in south Alabama. “I grew up in this area, so when you come in and see it, it breaks your heart,” Cassibry said.

The volunteers’ mission, she said, extends beyond meeting immediate needs.

“What we hope to do is help churches make a stronger connection in the community because we’ll leave but the church will still be there,” she said.

Lance likewise commended the disaster relief teams’ focus. “This a vital way to offer an incarnational witness for Jesus Christ. I personally heard accounts of people professing their faith in Christ as a result of these labors of love,” he said.

The Baldwin Baptist Association’s disaster relief team, which has frequently been activated for other disasters, was told to tend for their own needs and let other teams take the lead. But, Patterson said, as their needs were taken care of, they began stepping in to help other disaster relief teams serving in the area.

“Even though we’re not on call, we’re still very active,” Patterson said. “We have made our equipment available to teams here,” including several larger saws and equipment to keep the saws sharp.

Baldwin Baptist Association’s churches were in some of the areas hardest hit by Ivan, especially Romar Beach Baptist Church in Gulf Shores, which was demolished. Only its sign remains to mark the spot where the church once stood.

Oyster Bay Baptist Church, although still standing, also was heavily damaged. Sitting on Plash Island between Mobile Bay, Oyster Bay and the Bon Secour River, the church’s five buildings withstood the onslaught of a storm surge reaching as high as seven feet. All buildings but one were flooded and were left covered with mud.

Pastor Jerry Peebles estimated that about 80 percent of the church’s 400 members experienced moderate to total losses of their homes and property, but none were killed or injured.

“This has kind of crippled us because nobody can step up and help each other, because we’re all riding in the same boat now,” Peebles said. Even so,
the spirit of the 150-year-old church remains strong, he said. “We’ve got flooded buildings, damaged buildings, but the church has not gone away. We’re still here.”

Which is why he decided to hold services Sept. 19, the first Sunday after Ivan roared through. The church’s sanctuary was newer and higher than the other buildings and did not flood.

Peebles said many church members insisted on gathering to praise and worship God for bringing them and their families safely through the storm.

He added that the Sunday service showed the community the church was continuing to persevere. “[The church members] will be resilient and come back again, probably better than before.”

Although many are addressing their own needs, the focus is turning outward as time goes on, as evidenced at First Baptist Church in Gulf Shores.

Pastor Lloyd Stilley said the church, which suffered some water damage due to Ivan’s toll on the steeple, was beginning to look at long-range strategies for helping those who have lost their homes or belongings or who have other long-term problems. The church also has been housing Southern Baptist disaster relief volunteers from Illinois.

Other less-damaged churches in Gulf Shores also were hosting disaster relief teams or undertaking their own relief efforts.

Lagoon Baptist Church, which had water damage in the sanctuary from the storm surge and trees down on the grounds, has been preparing meals three times a day for anyone who wanted them and housing some people who lost their homes or who cannot return home at the moment.

Church secretary Angie Dailey said Ivan brought members closer. “There’s a great community effort to get things going as well as we can,” she said.

First Baptist Church in Orange Beach also was hosting disaster relief teams. Pastor John Price said the church’s minimal damage could not compare with what many had. Ivan’s 140 mph winds peeled back a section of the church’s metal roof, letting in rain and knocking off shingles on another part of the roof.
Compiled from reporting by Erin Webster with The Alabama Baptist newsjournal.

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