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Florida church plant carries on in spite of 2 hurricanes

OKEECHOBEE, Fla. (BP)–Sean Bergen expected divine intervention as he looked forward to the launch of a new church start deep in the heart of Florida in the aftermath of Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne.

Though plans were for the tiny congregation to open its doors after a blitz into the community during the month of September, Bergen told Florida Baptist Witness Oct. 1 he believes Everglades Baptist Church will reach folks in spite of the tough times.

“We are trusting that this will be a divine appointment,” Bergin said. “Of course we are not as prepared as we’d like, but I trust God will use us.”

Bergen, who will graduate in December from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., is participating in the Nehemiah Project with the North American Mission Board. The Florida Baptist Convention has coordinated the church start, and the church’s sponsors are the Big Lake Baptist Association and Oakview Baptist Church in Okeechobee.

“It is amazing what the Florida Baptist Convention provides in church planting efforts,” Bergen said. “We’re excited to see what God does.”

About a dozen members from Oakview began meeting with Bergen during Bible study time a year ago, Bergen said. Nine months ago the group expanded and began meeting in Bergen’s home, designed especially by Oakview for the purpose of hosting up to 50 people for Sunday morning worship.

Bergen planned to set up about 115 chairs at Everglades Elementary, where the congregation was to meet for the first time Oct. 3, but he had about 200 more folding chairs loaded in a church cargo van in case more people showed up.

“We should expect big of God,” he said.

John Keith, pastor of Oakview, and Bergen’s father-in-law, said his church has also faced a number of challenges brought on by the hurricanes. After traveling to First Baptist Church in Arcadia to serve people in a food line after Hurricane Charley struck in August, Keith faced his own disaster in September.

Inside the congregation’s three-year-old $2 million fellowship hall, which doubles as a sanctuary, about 11 trusses shifted during Hurricane Frances, bowing the ceiling and threatening to collapse the entire structure.

The damage was not noticed until a few days after the building was used to house about 188 people who sought shelter during Hurricane Frances. An engineer then declared the building unsafe, and supports were put in place to brace the structure from further damage. When Hurricane Jeanne came through a few weeks later, Keith said even more damage was evident.

“We knew we couldn’t have church,” Keith said. About 600-900 attend the church, depending on the season.

Despite making arrangements to meet in a school nearby, Keith said the congregation was unable to meet the entire month of September when, in anticipation of Jeanne, the school became unavailable. The church cannot meet outside because of intense heat and the danger of mosquitoes, Keith said. He anticipated planning to stagger meeting times at a nearby Nazarene church until the Oakview building is restored.

Before it could recover from Frances, the area was hard hit by Jeanne. In Keith’s own home, carpets and sheet rock were soaked when water spread inside.

Others in the church were not as fortunate and their entire homes were condemned, Keith said. Clean-up crews from the church continue to offer tarps and help with clearing debris, he added, but there is still an urgent need to dry out roofs and remove fallen trees in the area.

“The worst thing about the hurricane is after it’s over,” Keith said. “We are on the back burner” as far as relief efforts go.

“But we are not on the back burner with the Lord,” he said. “He puts us on the front burner.”

Even after Hurricane Frances impacted the area and the congregation was unable to meet, Keith said teams using the FAITH evangelism strategy were able to go on visits twice after Frances.

“Our teams were able to talk to people about their needs after the hurricane, but also share Christ,” Keith said. “We are not on the back burner.”

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  • Joni B. Hannigan