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Florida Baptists minister in fire areas, assess needs

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–As firestorms raged throughout the state, Florida Baptist churches reached out in various ways to minister to people affected by the disaster, and Florida Baptist Convention officials were exploring ways to provide additional assistance.
As of Monday morning, July 6, the fires had devoured 200 homes, scorched 458,200 acres and left a smoky trail of damage totaling $276 million, according to the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.
Florida Baptist Convention Executive Director-Treasurer John Sullivan and missions division director Cecil Seagle traveled to Halifax Baptist Association, based in Daytona Beach, on July 6 to meet with Baptists in the fire area and assess needs. They were planning to meet with area pastors on July 7.
When the wildfires forced a mandatory evacuation of the town of Waldo in late June, First Baptist Church there was wrapping up a second day of Vacation Bible School when they learned they had to get the children to safety.
“When the authorities issued a mandatory evacuation, we thought we were seeing the town for the last time,” said Lynn Williams, minister of education and youth. “It’s a miracle the town is still here.” The wildfires had jumped Highway 24 and formed a dangerous “V” pattern that came within one block of the church. But no injuries were reported in the town, and structural damage was limited to a pole barn.
Waldo residents were moved from area fairgrounds to a school when temperatures topped 100 degrees. A majority of First Baptist members stayed with nearby family and friends, Williams said.
The church remained open as a firefighting command center. Church staff and other volunteers later were allowed to return to help feed and house firefighters in its family life center. Several area businesses donated food to the effort.
Initially, the church helped about 200 firefighters, some from as far away as North Carolina and Mississippi. For a week-and-a-half, about 45 church members worked on shifts around the clock to provide for 130-150 firefighters.
“If a firefighter’s shift ended at 2 a.m. and he hadn’t eaten yet, then we served coffee and meals at 2 a.m.,” Williams said. “We didn’t mind because they are going above and beyond the call of duty for us.”
Riverbend Community Church (formerly First Baptist) in Ormond Beach, began serving as a Red Cross staging area and served meals to firefighters when the fires first broke out. The church then became a command post and communication center for officials mapping out firefighting strategies throughout Volusia County.
“We’re blessed as a church that we can help,” said Roy Hargrave, Riverbend’s senior pastor. “The Lord, who has provided us such nice facilities, chose to spare these facilities late Wednesday night (July 1) and again early Thursday morning when it looked like we might lose them. So we’ve given them over to be used as needed by the firefighting officials.”
In order to allow fire fighting efforts to continue uninterrupted, the church held its July 5 service at the Peabody Auditorium in Daytona Beach. The community-wide service was held to offer prayers and support to firefighters and to those who had been evacuated or impacted by the flames.
Rima Ridge Baptist Church, Ormond Beach, also was used as a staging area during the fire crisis. The church ministered to about 250 firefighters by serving meals, snacks and drinks as well as taking meals to the fire lines, reported pastor Marcus Buckley June 25. He said fires had come within a mile of the church. First Baptist Church, Oak Hill, also was providing meals and shelter to 20-25 firefighters.
Fires came within two miles of Francis Baptist Church, Palatka, reported pastor Bill Williams, and some church families were temporarily evacuated from their homes June 22.
At the request of local fire and law enforcement officials, Francis Baptist opened its family life center as a resource to the firefighting command post operating on the church property, with volunteers from the church and community feeding and housing about 150 firefighters, working around the clock. Local businesses, as well as individuals, donated food and supplies.
The Palatka pastor said volunteers responded eagerly when he began calling for help, and were working together smoothly even though the effort was organized on short notice. The mood of the community has been appreciative, he added, noting that one woman whose house was saved from burning has come by the church several times to bring chips or other items for the firefighters.
Sunday morning services were canceled at Fellowship Baptist Church, Raiford, so the church could serve as a control center for firefighters battling a blaze that came a mile from the church. The fire was contained that morning and services resumed that night. That morning, Fellowship members attended Sunday morning services at First Baptist Church, Raiford.
Several churches in St. John’s River Baptist Association served as shelters for evacuees from nearby counties. Three Palatka churches, College Park, Peniel and Lemon Heights, along with; First Baptist Church, San Mateo, were among churches in the community that opened their doors to those in need of shelter.
The fires, meanwhile, have not left Baptist families untouched, with some in the affected areas incurring property damage or and many being forced to evacuate.
David Vannoy, pastor of Community Baptist Church, Bunnell, and layman Charlie Bracewell were racing to safeguard their homes against wildfires one minute, and the next minute they and their families were in a race for their lives, with the only way out to drive through the flames.
Sudden wind gusts repeatedly blew flames from the June 6 conflagration across streets, creating unpredictable paths of destruction and blocking numerous roads, including a 30-mile stretch of Interstate 95.
Despite fire pelting across their windshields and flames shooting hundreds of feet into the air around them, the families escaped unscathed.
Both men said they were blinded by the waves of smoke and fire, but they are certain that when they could not see, God guided them to safety.
“My truck almost quit halfway through, with my wife driving the car behind me,” Vannoy recounted. “If I would have stopped in the middle of the fire, we all would have died. But the Lord was our eyes, our shield and our safety, and we made it through.”
Bracewell, a member of First Baptist Church of Central Florida in Orlando, is a retired fireman with the Orlando fire department and currently works as a paramedic in Winter Park. He had been helping track rescue units at the fire department’s command center when the fire shifted toward his home. He rushed to his mobile home, located where he and his wife, Carol, planned to build a house.
“I heard the roar of the fire coming, and we started trying to grab some things,” he said. “But the flames were all around the trailer. Trees were bursting into flames around us.”
Bracewell, who had brought firefighting gear, tried to salvage items, but one end of the trailer already was consumed by flames.
After the Bracewells drove through the flames, they and two other couples had to be rescued by helicopter because they were trapped between a nearby lake and the impending fire.
The Vannoys also lost their belongings in the fire, including all the pastor’s ministry books, records and resources, which were stored in the house. The family had just spent three weeks and $3,000 repairing and repainting their home. And that Sunday was to have been the start of a building campaign at Community Baptist for a new sanctuary.
Vannoy said the Lord instead used the Sunday service as a time to reach out to the community, encircling those who had lost their homes in prayer.
Jim and Sherry Bass, members of First Baptist Church, Chipley, were attending Vacation Bible School commencement when word came that their house was on fire. Lightning had struck a tree limb, which became entangled with a power line and crashed onto their roof. The fire was contained to the attic, but caused about $10,000 in roof, fire and water damage.

Reported by Kristi Hodge, Carla Lahey, Jerry Schaeffer and Shari Schubert.