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Katrina response earns Utah-Idaho group recognition

SALT LAKE CITY (BP)–Joe Walker will always remember the woman he encountered in Louisiana soon after Hurricane Katrina smashed the Gulf Coast last summer.

Dressed in a fur coat and pearls, she told the member of Southeast Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, “I may look strange, but this is all I own.”

“That was a touching experience, to help people who had nothing,” said Walker, a volunteer with the Utah-Idaho SBC Disaster Relief ministry. “They were living in expensive homes and a moment later they were living in tents.”

Walker and his wife, LaNell, twice visited the Gulf last year. After spending two weeks at First Baptist Church of Slidell, La., in September, they soon returned and spent two weeks at Pearl River, La.

The couple was among the 200 Utah and Idaho Southern Baptists who traveled to the region following the devastation, a response that helped earn the program statewide recognition in Utah.

The Utah Commission on Volunteers -– a program under the supervision of the state’s lieutenant governor –- recently honored the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention’s Disaster Relief group as its “Nonprofit Volunteer Program of the Year.”

Mark Madison, disaster relief director for the Salt Lake Baptist Association and the convention’s training coordinator, called the award significant because Utah ranks No. 1 nationally for per-capita volunteer involvement.

In addition, the two states represent a pioneering area for Southern Baptists, he said.

The program is one of the newest in the SBC. Since kicking off in October 2002, the Utah-Idaho Disaster Relief program has trained 575 volunteers, with a goal of 650 by the end of 2006.

“It’s a God thing,” Madison said. “He has blessed our ministry. We’ve had multiple opportunities for people to be involved, to respond and see God at work in disasters. They’ve gone back to their churches excited and gotten more people involved.”

Dan Walker, director of missions for the 33-church Salt Lake association, said the program has made his job easier. Not only are churches excited, he said, but local authorities also are turning to Southern Baptists for assistance.

“It has done huge things for us,” said Walker (no relation to Joe Walker). “It used to be that any time civic and civil organizations wanted help with anything they turned to the Mormon people. But Southern Baptist Disaster Relief has become the standard around here. They contact us first.”

Last September 800 evacuees from New Orleans came to Camp Williams, a National Guard base near Salt Lake City. The Utah-Idaho convention took sole responsibility for feeding them three meals a day for four weeks, Walker said.

The volunteers also responded to the 2004 hurricanes that struck Florida. They sent two medical teams after the tsunami struck Asia in December of 2004 and they were the first responders to flooding in southern Utah last November.

Madison said the program’s units include three units involved in recovery, two units for feeding, one for support, one for showers and one for communication.

Because it works in an area heavily influenced by Mormonism, conversions aren’t as frequent as in other parts of the nation. Madison said he knows of at least 12 conversions last year. But the effort is opening doors to members of the Latter-day Saints church.

“The LDS church is such that it’s a works-oriented religion,” Madison said. “When they see us in the mode of doing the activities we do, it generates a lot of respect. We’re working with some on a continuing basis and we hope some will (accept Christ), but that’s up to God.”

The inspiration for organizing the program originated with Dan Walker, who came to the 50-year-old Salt Lake Baptist Association in 1997. The director of missions got interested in disaster relief as a pastor in Idaho in the early 1990s after seeing what volunteers in Texas had accomplished.

However, when he later talked to someone about it, the man told him that in order to get involved in disaster relief, the convention would need to buy a semi trailer and build a kitchen.

Since they were unable to do that, Walker said he dropped the idea. But in 2000 a group traveled to Augusta, Ga., to work on rebuilding a camp as part of a partnership with the Augusta Baptist Association. When a member of that group’s disaster relief ministry brought tools for the job in a 16-foot trailer, Walker said he thought, “We can do that.”

“I got the association to buy a 16-foot trailer and focused on getting it stocked for missions and disaster relief,” Dan Walker said. “The trailer cost us $9,000 and we put about $8,000 into tools, chainsaws and that kind of stuff.”

The investment has paid valuable dividends.

“I can’t even count how many comments of appreciation we’ve had for the service of Southern Baptists,” LaNell Walker said. “People say, ‘The Southern Baptists stepped in and were the ones prepared to help.’”

During their two trips to the Gulf Coast last year, the couple primarily worked with shower and laundry units.

Providing volunteers and residents chances to clean up after mud-out work and to get clean clothes when laundries were closed or crowded drew numerous thank-yous, she said.

“I remember how good it made me feel to be able to help,” she said. “As a Christian, it’s gratifying to come in and help meet a need.”

Madison said when people are given a chance to help with disaster relief, they will volunteer.

“Help people take the first step,” Madison said. “You have to develop a skill of recognizing where people’s gifts are. Find a place to match them where God is working and get them plugged in. Once they see God move, what you have to do is get out of the way.”

    About the Author

  • Ken Walker