GALVESTON, Texas (BP)–A Southern Baptist disaster relief feeding unit stationed in Galveston, Texas, has passed the half-million mark for meals prepared for residents and workers in a region heavily damaged by Hurricane Ike.
The milestone, reached Oct. 10, was significant for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, which owns the unit, and disaster relief workers from six other state conventions who have helped man unit.
Volunteers say they’re aware that they’re feeding more than physical hunger as they pray with and witness to those seeking a hot lunch and dinner where few may be found. The work has yielded noticeable spiritual fruit.
John Davidson of Richmond, Va., began his post-Hurricane Ike service after a stint washing dishes in Beaumont in late September. He said he had many opportunities to pray with people who went to the Southern Baptist disaster relief feeding unit for food and clothes and other household items that had been donated by the community.
After two weeks on duty in Beaumont, Davidson transferred to Galveston. The majority of Southern Baptist volunteers work the kitchen, cooking and packing meals that are distributed throughout the community on Salvation Army canteens or Red Cross emergency relief vehicles. A few SBC volunteers help man the canteens or ERVs, giving them direct contact with the people they want to assist.
The SBC volunteers prefer riding with the Salvation Army crews because there are no restrictions on witnessing and praying. Davidson said he traveled with such a unit that regularly set up shop in the parking lot of a closed grocery store. But on his first trip Davidson said he knew there was the potential for trouble in a neighborhood plagued by rival gangs.
He told of a young man who approached the canteen and asked if he could help. After witnessing to and praying with the man, he was allowed to help. Davidson said the man, who wanted nothing to do with the gangs that plagued his neighborhood, turned up each day as the canteen rolled into the lot. Finally, the man told Davidson, “I want to accept Christ.”
The next day, with a Salvation Army captain on hand, the small band of believers circled up to lead their new brother in prayer. Afterward, the captain suggested, “Let’s sing a song.”
Without a strong lead singer, Davidson joked that their rendition of “Amazing Grace” that began to rise up wasn’t as melodious as it could have been. But as they were closing out the final verse, the roar of an engine and the blare of a radio began to drown out their singing. The source of the interruption finally rounded the corner.
Davidson recalled that a well-worn red pick up truck, occupied by “two crusty old men and the sound system cranked up,” sped into the parking lot where the impromptu worship service was taking place.
As the truck approached the group, the song from the radio became loud and clear. It was “I Saw the Light.” The truck never stopped. The driver just blew past the dumbfounded assembly, exiting the opposite side of the parking lot, music trailing off as the truck disappeared.
Recalling the moment, Davidson welled up and said, “Now the Bible tells us that the angels rejoice when someone becomes a Christian.”
Davidson said he couldn’t help but wonder who those men were and why they drove past the new Christian at that moment.
“When was the last time you saw two angels roaring around in a beat-up old pick-up truck?” he asked.
Another unit travels daily to a parking lot on the campus of the damaged and closed University of Texas Medical Center. They have served about 1,500 meals a day to the crews working to gut, clean and refurbish the hospital. With few restaurants open on the island and none within walking distance for the workers who have only a 30-minute lunch break, the canteens are a welcome sight come noon.
The meal of ravioli, green beans, fruit cocktail, cookies and water is dished up in the Salvation Army canteen and passed out by disaster relief volunteer Trish Herndon of Wytheville, Va., and Salvation Army volunteer Casi Rodriquez of San Antonio, who stack them on a table for the hungry laborers who will soon arrive. As the meals are prepared, Salvation Army Captain Gabriel Elias and his wife, Candee, of San Antonio, check the amplifier, guitar and microphone they will use for worship.
Just after noon, the work crews, most of whom speak Spanish, begin trickling into the parking lot that, by now, has a second canteen set up. Within 10 minutes the lines stretch down the parking lot and around a corner. Many of those arriving for lunch wave and greet the feeding crews like old friends meeting each other on the street. They are grateful.
Once they receive the meals the laborers seek out shade and find a place on the curb beneath a row of shrubs and listen to the songs of praise by the Eliases. When a group of half a dozen men are asked in Spanish by Candee what the meals mean to them, they readily speak up. One said most of the workers are 100 percent dependent on the meals.
One gentleman lives in Houston, but the others said most of them have been brought in by companies from across the southern United States and Mexico. They arrived on the island with little or no money, and for many the lunches and dinners cooked up in the SBTC kitchens are the only meals they have in a day.
When the crew was told that those who cook the meals prayed for those who received them, the man from Houston said in English, “We keep them in our prayers too.”
“Thanks and greetings to them,” replied another man.
It is such moments that workers in the kitchen miss. They know the work they do is for the Kingdom, but they long for the opportunity to meet firsthand the people they are helping. The kitchen, made up of two SBTC kitchen crews, one from Friendly Baptist Church in Tyler and one from the Salvation Army, sits on the tarmac of the Galveston Island airport surrounded by the torn and twisted remains of small private airplanes and the gutted remains of the hangar.
The kitchen is staffed by people from one coast to the other — Southern Baptists from Vermont, Washington, Oregon, Virginia, Maryland, states in between and even Canada. Most have just met as new crews switch out every week or two. Despite the fact that they do not yet know each other very well, a spirit of good humor and camaraderie pervades the kitchen.
Vicki Fisher, the “white hat” SBTC unit director, said the common bond of faith and a desire to serve those in need makes such a big endeavor work.
“What amazes me is the kitchen and everybody just comes in and everybody just meshes. It’s like you’ve known each other for years,” she said.
Volunteers wear pins on their hats and lanyards representing the places they have served and the people they have met. Swapping pins like tourists at Disney World is common, giving Southern Baptists a physical reminder of where God has taken them.
Fisher, who served in the SBTC kitchen that was deployed to Huntsville before Hurricane Ike made landfall, said she has seen God at work in the wake of the storm. Set up in an SBTC church parking lot, the unit was a major distribution point for the community. But one evening the kitchen was severely short staffed. She needed 22 volunteers to work the kitchen, but only six were available and Fisher was left wondering how the meals would be prepared the next day. Fisher said she did what she always does in such situations and gave the problem to God. The next morning 16 volunteers arrived to help.
For three days, she said, church members worked tirelessly to keep the kitchen and distribution site up and running. Cars filled with people from their community filed through the church parking lot, giving the church the opportunity to minister. That, Fisher said, is one of the main purposes of the SBTC kitchens.
When the community associates compassion and assistance with the people of a local church — not the disaster relief teams who blow in after a storm and leave soon thereafter — then the goal of connecting the people of a community with the people of God has been achieved.
Bonnie Pritchett is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.