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Rural Fla. church sees attendance rise 40 percent after hurricane

FORT OGDEN, Fla. (BP)–It’s been more than a month since Category 4 Hurricane Charley ripped through the rural community of Fort Ogden, just after it left Punta Gorda on its path of destruction though central Florida and out to sea at Daytona Beach.

And since then, three other powerful storms have hit the state and sent Floridians scrambling for shelter, food and peace of mind.

All the while, the folks at First Baptist Church, Fort Ogden, have been out and about, putting in 12-14 hour days tossing tarps on houses barely standing, clearing debris from yards, distributing food and clothing, and restarting electricity that pumps water, powers air conditioners and keeps breathing machines running.

Since Wayne Earnest, pastor of First Baptist Fort Ogden, spoke with Florida Baptist Witness Sept. 17, the fourth major hurricane in six weeks struck Florida. Hurricane Jeanne came ashore at Port St. Lucie Sept. 26 after causing major flooding that killed 1,500 people in Haiti.

Earnest said helping people recover from a hurricane is not just the right thing to do, it’s biblical.

“These guys have been working every day since the storm,” Earnest said. “We’ve had an opportunity to really have an impact on the community and touch people’s lives and that’s important.”

They’ve not been alone either. Willie Croy, a member of First Baptist who is also a retired electrician for Florida Power & Light, said the church has had help from a group of more than 30 volunteer contractors from First Baptist Church, Naples, who have partnered with the rural church every step of the way.

“They came in and they did a super job,” Croy told Florida Baptist Witness. “They brought their own materials, they have rebuilt several houses and totally did an awesome job. They have the equipment and they know how to use it,” he said.

The pastor said there are many in the community who were “poor before Charley” who now have nothing. Some live in homes where falling trees or heavy debris has taken off part of a roof or caved in an entire wing of the house. Some are in mobile homes or trailers still without electricity after more than a month. Still another family lives in a tent. Housing is scarce in the community, and even if it were available, the cost might be prohibitive to people who have lost everything and are trying to rebuild their lives.

Croy said the Florida Baptist Convention, FP&L and the local county have all provided him with needed electrical supplies and the permission to perform wire services that typically are put on hold until a service person can make a call to check on property damage and other considerations. But Croy said he has had the unique opportunity of bringing people electrical power.

“These people are so grateful, it’s unbelievable,” Croy said. “This has become the biggest outreach I’ve ever seen. We’ve been putting power into people’s homes and the power company has been working right along with us and the people are so thankful.”

Earnest agreed.

“These guys are putting their faith in action,” Earnest said. “People who normally have problems with Christians talking about their faith raise up their heads and find out that the guy who put the electric service in or the guy that tarped their roof is a Christian.”

That makes a difference, Earnest said. So does the fact that the church members always leave a letter telling people the service is free of charge and inviting them to worship services. And the result is that more people are coming to church than ever before.

“All we do is invite them to church,” Earnest said. “Offerings have doubled and attendance has gone up probably 40 percent and that’s pretty nice when you think about it because a lot of times a disaster would slow things down. It has had the opposite effect.”

The need in the community remains high, Earnest said. He extends an invitation for volunteers who can stay in nearby hotels or be housed in the church. He also urges others to help in any way they can.

“I think it’s very important for churches to be seen, to be visible doing something,” said Earnest. “Some churches can’t do the construction like our people have been doing. Well, do what you can do. Give out food or clothes or something.”

And pray.

“Prayer is always good, but there’s a time when you’ve got to put shoe leather to your prayer and do something,” he said. “This is the time people start to forget what happened, especially now that we’ve had two hurricanes.

“But, we still have a lot of work to do,” Earnest said.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan