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Iowa floods spark Baptist cooperation

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (BP)–The summer of 2008 will long be remembered in Cedar Rapids both for the 500-year flood that swamped the Iowa city and for the flood of compassion and cooperation provided by Southern Baptist churches across the country.

“This past summer was extraordinary,” said Dan Wiersema, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, where about 130 people attend Sunday morning worship. “Our parking lot became the official disaster relief site for feeding units and mud-out units. Volunteers assisted by our members prepared more than 120,000 meals. We slept as many as 60 in our facilities, and teams from several states completed mud-out jobs for 50 homeowners in an area less than a mile from our church.

“This [flood] definitely was an object lesson for the Cooperative Program,” Wiersema noted. “We were greatly blessed, our community was greatly blessed and church members could see in a fresh way the cooperative efforts of Southern Baptists and the blessings that flowed from that.”

Today the church is working to follow up on seeds sown by some of the 100-plus disaster relief units from 23 states that responded to the massive flooding in Iowa. Other seeds have been germinating since the 1950s when Missouri Southern Baptists, primarily, began to start churches in Iowa, including Immanuel in 1959.

From its birth Immanuel has been a strong supporter of global missions causes through the SBC’s Cooperative Program. Currently it commits 16 percent of its undesignated receipts to reaching people through CP plus 5 percent for its local Baptist association.

“The challenge as I see it in Iowa,” Wiersema said, “is to lead the next generation to see firsthand that this is what cooperation looks like. For the new members, it’s been an eye-opener…. In our new member class I explain Southern Baptist distinctives, but to see firsthand, like we did this summer, that this is what cooperation looks like, that adds a whole new dimension to their membership.”

As one of only two Southern Baptist churches in Cedar Rapids and one of about 100 in Iowa, Immanuel has a vital interest in church planting. It started Northbrook Baptist Church in Cedar Rapids in 1981, other churches in Decorah, Manchester, Waterloo and Bertram and most recently has been conducting outreach efforts toward starting a church in North Liberty, about 20 miles south of Cedar Rapids.

In addition, a Korean Southern Baptist congregation has shared Immanuel’s building for the last 18 years.

“I think the Southern Baptist style of cooperating for missions is a distinctive that is worth trumpeting because of the coordinated fashion for extending the Kingdom — both in North America and around the world,” the pastor said. “It’s a strategic effort worthy of support.”

An M.Div. graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and currently a doctoral student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, for example, Wiersema said his ministry has benefitted from the affordable education made possible because of the Cooperative Program. Immanuel itself was birthed with Cooperative Program support. And Iowa, as a state convention in a new work area, remains more of a recipient than a giver to the Cooperative Program.

“Every time I turn around, there are resources and evidence in place because of the cooperative giving of Southern Baptists,” Wiersema said. “Were it not for the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptist work in Iowa would not be as healthy as it is today.”

Iowa Southern Baptists offer a children’s camp in several associations, a state youth camp and the Friendship Baptist Center in Des Moines. The state convention owns a disaster relief feeding unit; two associations partner in a chain saw unit.

Much, however, remains to be done in Iowa, Wiersema said.

“We have many counties in the state without a Southern Baptist work,” he said. “Within the territory of just the Northeast Iowa Southern Baptist Association, at least a dozen counties have no Southern Baptist work.”

That didn’t matter to Southern Baptists who swarmed into the state when four rivers – the Mississippi, Cedar, Des Moines and Iowa — swelled this June into what local officials said was at least a 500-year flood.

Trained SBC disaster relief volunteers -– staffing feeding, chaplaincy, mudout, assessment, recovery, shower, laundry and childcare units -– were deployed to minister to people in Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Wapello, Davenport, Des Moines and Iowa City.

Working with disaster relief units gave the Immanuel congregation (most of whom drive a distance to church) a fresh awareness of the Iowans who live within a mile of the church, in an area called “Time Check” because of bygone credit-’til-payday practices, Wiersema said.

“Many people in the city are still waiting to know if their property will be bought [by the government],” the pastor said. “There are significant businesses that will not be opening up again…. There are a lot of people still displaced…. There’s a lot of uncertainty.”

Even as Immanuel works to reach out to the people they can find in the Time Check area, they also continue working to establish the North Liberty church plant in cooperation with the First Baptist Church in Humboldt, Tenn. A prayerwalk of the area took place in May followed in late June by day camps for youngsters through the sixth grade, despite the widespread flooding in the state.

“The flood pre-empted a lot of ministry plans, but we accomplished our plan to reach out to North Liberty,” Wiersema said. “We had good participation in worship and Sunday School at Immanuel even when we had 30 to 60 volunteers housed in our building, and a good number from our church helped with the feeding unit and helped cook meals for workers.”

Through it all, relationships were built, Wiersema said, noting, “The relationships are key.”

Wiersema, born in Iowa and reared in Illinois, understands the need for thinking long-term and developing relationships in order to earn the right to talk with people about Jesus.

“I know there’s a little different rhythm of life here, in part because of the winters,” the pastor said. “The people are more to themselves here. It’s a difficult field in which to work and to cultivate, but I’m not put off by it. You have to build relationships up here, longer term, so that’s what we do, that’s what we’re after.”

Wiersema, called in July 2006 as pastor of a congregation “in need of younger families,” as he put it, carefully maintains a worship style appealing to younger as well as older members, evidenced by the fact that the congregation has grown by 80 new members.

He uses video clips from the SBC’s North American and International mission boards and other resources to provide the congregation with ongoing education about global missions.

“I do talk about it a lot,” Wiersema said. “I try to use frequent opportunities in sermons to share what makes Southern Baptists special…. We are strong in leadership here but one of the challenges facing us as a congregation is to groom and mentor the next generation of leadership. Part of that is teaching them about the Cooperative Program.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message.