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Hurricanes, floods, other disasters call SBC relief volunteers to action

SEVEN SPRINGS, N.C. (BP)–W.A. Weeks was familiar with Southern Baptists, particularly Seven Springs Baptist Church where his wife was a member and he attended sporadically. But it wasn’t until he experienced Christianity through Southern Baptist disaster relief volunteers from Seven Springs and other churches that he realized his own need for a personal relationship with Christ.

After Hurricane Floyd left 36 inches of water standing in their North Carolina home in the fall of 1999, disaster relief volunteers initially helped by providing meals. Then crews came out and cleaned up the mud and debris from his home.

Finally, volunteers from First Baptist Church, Reidsville, N.C., undertook the months-long task of helping rebuild the Weekses home, with crews spending two days each week to help transform $20,000 worth of materials into an estimated $42,000 restoration.

“I don’t know what my wife and I would have done had it not been for volunteers from the Baptist church,” Weeks said.

In one of Southern Baptists’ most visible volunteer ministry efforts, more than 24,500 disaster relief volunteers last year responded to 75 disaster situations. They prepared more than 190,000 meals for distribution by the American Red Cross and worked on more than 1,800 homes and 1,600 yards.

“Disaster relief for most of the volunteers is a way of living out their faith in Christ,” said Mickey Caison, national coordinator for Southern Baptist disaster relief and an associate in the North American Mission Board’s adult volunteer mobilization unit.

“This is another way of sharing our faith during times of crisis by ministering with physical and spiritual assistance,” he said.

The first formal coordinated Southern Baptist disaster relief response by volunteers can be traced to 1968, when Texas Baptist Men responded to Hurricane Beulah.

The number of disaster relief units grew steadily during the 1970s and 1980s, but the reputation and scope of the ministry took a big jump in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo crossed the South Carolina coast. Churches throughout the Southeast and the nation became increasingly aware of the needs and opportunities for ministry and evangelism. Prior to Hugo, Caison said, there were fewer than 100 separate disaster relief units. Today there are more than 290.

Disaster relief units are operated by churches, Baptist associations and state conventions, and their efforts are coordinated primarily through state Southern Baptist disaster relief organizations. The North American Mission Board coordinates the efforts on a national level, particularly in larger disasters that require a multi-state response.

The Southern Baptist response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was the largest before or since, with more than 2 million meals served during that response alone. Widespread flooding in the Midwest the next year further illustrated the ministry opportunities.

Seven Springs Baptist Church, which gave initial aid to the Weeks family, is an example of a church that saw the need firsthand and has since organized to help others. While the initial feeding efforts were mobilized directly in response to the need, the church has since formed its own official Southern Baptist Disaster Relief feeding unit that often helps others.

The church has also seen the tangible benefits of ministry. Weeks and three other families have come to faith in Christ and joined the church directly as a result of the relief efforts.

“They were recipients, and now they are helping others. And it doesn’t stop. They just keep coming,” pastor Ashley Summerlin said, recounting that one of the men who accepted Christ was part of a National Guard unit and saw the relief efforts firsthand.

“As bad as this whole flooding and disaster was, as we just hang on to God something really, really good is coming out of it,” Summerlin said, noting that the church itself was flooded during the storm but is now relocating to higher ground.

While Southern Baptist disaster relief does not receive any direct federal funding, the ministry is a model for how public and private groups can work together without sacrificing principles, said Jim Burton, director of volunteer mobilization for the North American Mission Board.

The most significant partnership is with the American Red Cross, which provides the food in many cases for Southern Baptists to prepare, arranges facilities where the Baptist units set up and often delivers the food to residents and relief workers. Southern Baptist disaster relief also works closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which often helps residents buy materials used by Southern Baptist volunteers. But none of the relationships prevent Southern Baptists from speaking freely about their faith.

“The question that our volunteers typically get are, ‘Who are you and why are you here?'” Caison said. “And that gives them an opportunity to share a verbal witness and testimony of their faith in Christ.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: RELIEF ON THE WAY.

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  • James Dotson