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Pastor says relief efforts help earn ‘right to be heard’

PENSACOLA, Fla. (BP)–Pastor Ron Lentine wasn’t campaigning for either presidential candidate the evening of Nov. 2. Instead, he and about 40 to 50 others canvassed neighborhoods near Myrtle Grove Baptist Church in Pensacola to follow up on more than two months of steady relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Ivan.

“We told them we knew it was election night and they were probably watching the results, but we asked them if we could pray for them,” Lentine told the Florida Baptist Witness.

“Ivan was a bad thing, but Ivan is bringing many good things,” the pastor said. “In almost every home it has given an open door for our people to say, ‘Can we pray for you?’”

Myrtle Grove became a center of activity for Florida Baptist disaster relief efforts after Ivan struck the area Sept. 16, traumatizing local residents, sending trees crashing into homes and toppling power lines.

Bordered by many mobile home and low-income housing communities, Myrtle Grove hosted nearly 200-250 Southern Baptist Disaster Relief workers from six states who slept in the congregation’s Sunday School classrooms.

The volunteers, most of whom were coordinated through Florida Baptist disaster relief officials, ranged from chainsaw crews to childcare volunteers and kitchen helpers.

And in the midst of ministering to people whose lives were turned topsy-turvy by the storm, Lentine said he never lost sight of the need to share Christ.

Hosting a one-day evangelism blitz within a few weeks of Ivan was not only appropriate, but essential, the pastor said.

“I think that if Christ is real, and He is, and eternal life is real, and it is, then there is never an inappropriate time,” Lentine said. “If we’re helping deliver food and relief to people, we’re earning a right to be heard.

“We are saying, ‘Here’s some principles; here’s some stuff that will help your soul way beyond the storm,’” he continued. “That’s not a prerequisite, that is a post-mandate. If we only gave them relief and failed to share the Gospel, then we’re helping them only for a brief period of time.”

Participants in the church’s FAITH Sunday School evangelism strategy were at the forefront of the Nov. 2 community outreach. Lentine said FAITH training last year led to a record number of baptisms, 117, in the 2,000-resident-member church which runs about 750 in worship.

This year he believes the church will see more than 200 baptized — in large part due to the impact relief efforts on behalf of the church have had in the community.

In 23 years as a pastor, Lentine said he has never seen such an openness in the community and such an opportunity for the church.

“Right after the hurricane, there were people coming in crying, distraught, disoriented and in shock,” Lentine said. “It’s sad. But at the same time this has been one of the most incredible weeks of my entire ministry.

“On one hand it grieves you to see it; on the other hand, it’s very exciting to see the opportunity to win souls,” he said.

The Myrtle Grove congregation will not soon forget the impact of disaster relief ministry in their community.

Lentine reported that more than $40,000 has been donated for distribution to church families who suffered loss or damage to their homes, and a “resource connection” has provided a means by which donations of furniture, appliances and even cars have been given to the needy.

“I’ve never quite had an experience like this,” Lentine said. “I can’t say enough about the kindness of our fellow Christians from all over.

“We thank the Lord for what God has been doing. The people’s hearts are so sensitive and we are looking toward a greater harvest than we have ever had before.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.

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