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Putting others first is key facet of post-Floyd disaster ministry

LA GRANGE, N.C. (BP)–“The church has put our talking into walking since this disaster” wrought by Hurricane Floyd, said David Leary, director of missions at the Neuse Baptist Association in La Grange, N.C.
Hundreds of recovery projects have been completed in North Carolina alone, along with more than 650,000 meals served, by Southern Baptists since Hurricane Floyd flooded much of the eastern portion of the state Sept. 16.
Led by Baptist volunteers from as far away as Missouri, disaster relief repair teams and feeding units in North and South Carolina and Virginia continue their work as floodwater begins to recede along the Mid-Atlantic coast.
“[A]nd people are responding like never before,” Leary said. “They’re seeing God’s love in action as the Christian leadership reaches out to help each other and the community.
“Even though we have tremendous damage ourselves, we believe we should go to them first,” Leary said.
Ashley Summerlin, pastor of Seven Spring Baptist Church in Seven Springs, N.C., is a good example.
Hurricane Floyd’s rainwaters completely flooded Summerlin’s 100-year-old church and home, but in the three weeks since the disaster, he has worked 16-hour days coordinating volunteer repair teams from across the state to help others in his community. He and his wife, Cynthia, have been living in a small apartment at the office of their local Baptist association. They recently learned repairs to the church alone would exceed $250,000.
“We have fewer than 200 members in our congregation, so I’m not sure if we’ll be able to afford to fix the church,” Summerlin said. “We’re not sure about the home either, but sitting here and worrying won’t change anything. God has been good to us and he’ll see us through this. I believe we will be a better community — a more close-knit family — because of this tragedy.”
And, for example, a Baptist couple in Franklin, Va., who lost everything in the storm were still volunteering all day at a local shelter, said Lloyd Douglas, disaster relief coordinator for the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
The property damage Summerlin and others suffered is not unusual. Hurricane Floyd ravaged the East Coast with high winds and driving rains, causing many rivers to rise three times above their normal levels. As of Oct. 7, many communities were still under water. “I drove down a couple roads in our town right off Interstate 40,” said Mike Parnell, pastor of Burgaw (N.C.) Baptist Church. “You see everything people owned — their whole lives — piled up on the edge of the street. And that goes on for miles and miles here.”
But tragedy and despair has turned to hope in many areas as the Lord worked through Baptist relief teams. Tina Sage, a Kentucky Baptist disaster relief volunteer in Wilson, N.C., told of working at an older couple’s home to tear out the flood-damaged inside and sanitize the area. “Mr. Watson and his wife were standing in the rain watching a front-end loader scooping up their belongings,” Sage recounted. “We tore out soggy drywall, pulled out wet insulation and ripped up buckling floors. Our work acted as a vaccine for the Watsons. They began to gain hope and even smile again.”
In Pender County, N.C., Baptist volunteers from Pilot Mountain, N.C., worked with a family who lived in desperate poverty even before Hurricane Floyd struck. “The volunteers were so concerned about the family, they took up a collection among themselves before they left,” Parnell said. “They donated $500 on the spot.”
And flood victims are showing their appreciation for the church’s efforts in unusual ways. A team from Indian Trail Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., helped an elderly man clean out his damaged house Oct. 2. “He was so thankful, he offered them a fifth of Irish whiskey,” said Ashley Summerlin. “They politely declined and used the situation as an opportunity to share the gospel with him.”
Relief workers say that most people they encounter in the communities can’t believe the volunteers have left their homes, often traveling hundreds of miles, to spend days tearing out dirty carpets and sanitizing whole communities flooded with backed-up sewer lines.
Nearly 800 people in North Carolina alone have volunteered during the last two weekends, said Mark Abernathy, disaster relief team coordinator at the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. Projects have also been scheduled for Oct. 7-9 and more than 650 people have signed up.
But many areas have yet to be reached, and some people are in more desperate need than others. North Carolina’s large migrant community was hit especially hard, and many Hispanics who lack full immigrant status are afraid to ask for help.
“We will probably never know how many migrants have died and how many have lost everything,” said Gilberto Barbosa, pastor of the Hispanic Mission of Tarboro, N.C. “They are scared to go to the government-run shelters and relief supply centers. The Baptists have finally been able to distribute food, clothes and other necessities to them from an old grocery store in Tarboro. The people are so grateful. They’ve told us that no other church in the area is doing as much to help them as the Baptists. Now they have hope.”
Jim Alley, minister of music at First Baptist Church, Rocky Mount, N.C., told of a volunteer team from his church helping a Jewish man clean his flood-damaged home. “He told us that he believed the Christian people are really showing they care about their community, that they know how to respond to hurting people. I agree. So many positive things are happening in Rocky Mount because of Christ’s love and the spirit of giving.”
Even as the floodwater begins to recede in some areas, much remains to be done. Community leaders believe many towns will spend the rest of 1999 simply cleaning up and evaluating the damage.
“Sure, I’m tired,” Parnell said. “But I can’t stop. These people symbolize Christ for me. We are to serve our brothers and sisters as we serve him. And I just know Jesus is out there in a flooded trailer park, living alone with no furniture, no power, and very little food. I have to find him. I have to help.”

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  • Kelli Williams