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Flood relief vols call it ‘a joy’ to help

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–On this day, the lunch menu would consist of pork chops and mashed potatoes, and — over the course of the next 10 hours — some 10,000 meals would be cooked for Middle Tennessee flood victims.

Welcome to the world of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, where meals are cooked by the oodles and a day with 10,000 meals is considered, well, normal. It’s also far from the record, which was set back in 2008, when 150,000 meals in one day were prepared for victims of Hurricane Ike.

The 30-plus “feeding unit” volunteers who were set up in the parking lot of Nashville’s Judson Baptist Church May 12 were just a handful of the 88,000-plus Southern Baptists who are trained for disaster relief, ready to head to any disaster location at a moment’s notice.

“Once you start, you love to do it,” Charlie Sherwood, a member of Second Baptist Church in Clinton, Tenn., told Baptist Press. “I hate for a disaster to happen, but it’s a joy to go out and help people.”

But Southern Baptist DR volunteers don’t just prepare meals. Among other things, they remove downed trees, clean out and help rebuild flooded homes, provide portable hot showers and, of course, minister in the name of Christ to people who often have lost everything. The volunteers make up one of the nation’s three largest disaster relief efforts, the other two being the Red Cross and Salvation Army.

It’s tough work, yes, but — they’ll tell you — worth it.

Sherwood, 76, should know. He went out initially in 1980 and increased his frequency of participation with each decade. He estimates he’s participated at least 50-75 times during those 30 years, volunteering about three times each year in recent years. But, honestly, he’s lost count.

“Some people can’t understand why we do it,” he said. “We tell them that we love them and the Lord loves them.”

Over the years Sherwood has helped victims of tornadoes, hurricanes, ice storms and floods. He also travelled to New York City in the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In Nashville, Sherwood and the rest of the feeding unit crew woke up around 5 a.m. each day to begin assisting the Nashville area, which saw thousands of homes flooded May 1-2 and experienced at least $1.5 billion in flood damage in the city alone. The early rise was necessary because the first batch of lunch meals had to be ready by 8:30 in order to be delivered by 10:30 to locations two hours way.

The unit — owned by the Tennessee Baptist Convention — ran like clockwork, with volunteers wearing color-coded hats, depending on their task. Those in white and blue caps were the leaders, while those in yellow caps — the predominant color — were the workers.

The food is cooked in huge restaurant-sized tilt skillets and ovens and then poured into red Cambro food storage containers, resembling red Igloo ice coolers. There’s also a dessert, which usually consists of something easy to prepare, such as canned peaches. Red Cross volunteers pick up the Cambros and then take them to shelters and communities where they pour the food into Styrofoam clamshell containers similar to restaurant takeout boxes. Each meal also contains a roll or other type of bread.

Southern Baptist feeding units often work in partnership with the Red Cross, and the food must be warm enough so that it’s 140 degrees when it’s served.

Once lunch is cooked, the volunteers find time to grab a bite to eat and then begin cooking a different menu for supper. On this day, it was chicken and dumplings and peas.

Occasionally the units set up feeding lines on-site, where disaster victims stand in line to get a meal. The Nashville feeding unit did not have a feeding line, but the lines can be eye-opening experiences.

“We had people in 2008 in Texas who drove 30 miles to pick up plates because there was no electricity,” said Phyllis Griffith, a member of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Mountain City, Tenn. “We’d hand them the plate, and lot of them would say, ‘We just appreciate y’all so much. We haven’t had a hot meal in forever.’ It’s really heartbreaking to think that if we weren’t there, they wouldn’t have it.”

The Nashville flood was the third time Griffith had been out on disaster relief.

“It’s very rewarding,” she said. “After one time, you’re hooked.”

Each Southern Baptist volunteer must first go through disaster relief training, which takes place in locations close to home and lasts about a day and a half.

Sam McClanahan, a member of Vonore (Tenn.) Baptist Church, began working on disaster relief units about eight years ago after he retired. A blue cap leader, he said he’s done a “bit of everything” over the years. His wife Nancy also is a DR worker.

“Retirees are the only ones that can easily drop what they’re doing and go,” McClanahan said. “When I hear of a hurricane coming, I’m starting to arrange things around the house, whether it’s mowing my yard — whatever I need to do. When I’m called, I can say, ‘I’m sitting here waiting for you.’ Nancy and I both, we don’t even ask each other. We just start arranging things.”

Getting involved in feeding units is an adventure, McClanahan said, and the volunteers often reward themselves late in the day by cooking something different, just for themselves.

“After these people have been standing here stirring beef stew for four or five hours, they don’t want that to eat it at night,” McClanahan said, smiling. “We normally go in a fix us something a little different.”
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. Donate to Tennessee flood disaster relief at www.TnBaptist.org or by sending a check to TBC, P.O. Box 728, Brentwood, TN 37024, with the designation “TN Floods 2010” on the check. Learn ways to help in the Nashville area at www.nashvillebaptistassociation.org. Learn ways to help in the Clarksville area at www.cumberlandba.org. Flood victims may complete a form at www.TNBaptist.org to request assistance. Forms can be faxed to 615-371-2014 or scanned and e-mailed to [email protected].

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust