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Refugees find hope in feeding ministry

GORI, Georgia (BP)–The refugees’ despair troubled Coy Webb the most.

Webb served on a six-member team of Southern Baptist disaster relief specialists who worked in Gori, Georgia, in early September, helping refugees driven from their homes a month earlier by fighting between Russian and Georgian troops.

“It’s just unbelievable the conditions they are living in,” said Webb, who is the disaster relief associate for the Kentucky Baptist Convention. “One of the elderly ladies who had come back to their homes, the whole side of her apartment had been knocked out by shelling. Here’s an elderly lady in her 80s, sleeping on the floor with nothing protecting her from the outside.”

An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 displaced people have taken refuge in Gori, with many of them housed in tent cities, others settled into government kindergarten buildings and about 2,000 taken into personal homes by local families. Southern Baptist volunteers, working in cooperation with Baptists in Gori, were providing hot meals to about 2,000 people a day, using money provided by the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund.

“Even before the conflict, this area was very poverty stricken. I think they told us unemployment was somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent in the area,” Webb said. “We could tell immediately that it was really putting a lot of pressure on these folks who had taken refugees in, to be able to care for not only their own families but those they were taking in. We were able to see that it was a very important ministry that we were able to provide some food relief for these folks.”

Families in Gori are deeply moved that Southern Baptists care enough to help them in their distress, Webb said.

“One of the most moving things for me was when we had delivered food to a daughter and mother. The mother was 100 years old and bed bound; the daughter was in her 70s, caring for her mother in a little one-room apartment,” Webb recounted. “They weren’t able physically to get where we were feeding so we delivered meals.

“On the last day, they were sharing their gratitude for what it had meant to them for us to deliver the meals and pray with them and minister to them. The daughter tried to give me [the deed to] a piece of property outside Georgia as an expression of gratitude,” Webb continued. “Of course, that’s not why we were there and we shared that with her, but I was amazed at that beyond-overflowing expression of gratitude she was trying to share with us.

“When you are visiting with someone in a one-room apartment where there’s hardly room to move around and they are trying to give you something, it’s very humbling and overwhelming.”

Serving among the displaced families reminded Webb that Psalm 68:5 describes God as “a father of the fatherless, a defender of widows.”

“Watching the folks come in through the lines, it reminded me that if we’re going to be God’s people, we need to be people who minister to the fatherless and the widows. Many, many elderly widows were coming through the line,” Webb said. “It broke my heart. It was obvious they dug plastic containers and cans out of the garbage just to have something to take food away in, because we recognized some of that as what we were using to feed them with.

“The other thing that struck me was the hopelessness and weariness you saw in so many faces,” Webb added. “For us to be able to help with food -– but even greater, just to minister in the name of Christ -– hopefully we began opening the folks to the hope of Christ.”

To date, Southern Baptists have contributed nearly $100,000 for the relief operation in Georgia, said Abraham Shepherd, who directs work in Europe and the Middle East for Baptist Global Response, a Southern Baptist international relief and development organization.

“The Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund is crucial for sustaining people in a desperate situation in order for them not only to survive but to have a glimpse of hope,” Shepherd said. “And we witnessed that glimpse of hope in the smiles on many faces of refugees and internally displaced people as they were cared for holistically.”

It was exciting to watch as the Baptist congregation in Gori made plans to hold the first worship service in a building the volunteers helped refurbish, Webb said.

“It was just a shell of a building. Through the volunteers who have come, along with the nationals we were working with, it was just unbelievable the transformation that has taken place in the building,” Webb said. “Putting windows and doors in. Putting some floors down. It was all dirt or gravel floor.”

The building “will be a tremendous opportunity to impact this community, particularly with the number of people who are coming through now, eating,” Webb said. The church has been meeting in an area dominated by businesses. The location where the feeding ministry has been conducted is on a main street, surrounded by apartment buildings.

Webb said he hopes Southern Baptists will pray that Georgians will find true peace and hope through the feeding ministry in Gori.

“I think there is still a great fear that the conflict will erupt again, that this is just a momentary peace,” he said. “Pray that they would have peace.”
Mark Kelly is an assistant editor with Baptist Press. Baptist Global Response is located on the Internet at gobgr.org.

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